I watched the new Oliver Stone movie last night: W.
What stuck with me upon leaving the movie was Bush's story of redemption, one common to many American leaders. Before religious conversion, he was a reckless, feckless, spoiled child of privilege: a snooty frat boy with no work ethic and an alcohol problem, who couldn't even hold down a summer job. He hated his life, his father, and his own failures.
But after becoming a born-again evangelical Christian, everything changed. All was forgiven, and his life was turned around. He ran for office and won. Eventually, God called him to be our president.
This story of atonement is a political archetype Americans hold dear. Bratty youths have some life-changing experience that forces them to realize the errors of their way and ask for forgiveness from their selves, their Gods, and their country. After this, they become successful public servants, committed to country and the public good.
It happened to John McCain as well. He too lived a life of wealth and ease, coasting on the legacy of his decorated military lineage. And, just like Bush, McCain had an archetypal moment of atonement. Only not in a South Texas church, but in a Vietnamese war prison. His seven years in captivity gave him the time to atone for past sins, learn to love his country, and commit to a life of service.
These two stories of atonement help the American public not only forgive McCain and Bush their wealth and the political trappings it brought the two of them, but they also humanize them to ordinary Americans. A politician who has fallen, gotten back up, and learned from the errors of his ways appears more human, more like the rest of us. If the goal is to be someone everyone can see themselves in, someone you want to share a drink with, these atonement stories help.
I was thinking about this and realized that Barack Obama doesn't have a similar story. Although he details his youthful indiscretions in depth in his first book (indiscretions which pale in comparison to Bush's and McCain's), he never apologizes for them, and he doesn't have to. They were sins of youth, which time, not the American public, needed to forgive.
Bar a little youthful experimentation, Obama lived a life free of shameful behavior. Actually, his personal story is exemplary. There's no Come to Jesus moment to prove that he's a sinner just like us. He was a kid who made it from food stamps to Harvard, who worked as a community organizer passing up quick corporate-law money. He's really smart, really good, and is pretty much the son every parent would love to have.
While I, and many others, love this, I think some voters are turned off by someone they see as so pious, as unfair as that is. He doesn't need to be forgiven, and that only plays into a Republican story line that makes Barack Obama uppity, presumptuous, elite, and out of touch. To many voters, it doesn't help that he's a Black man with more book smarts and money than most White people in this country.
While this is wrong, it's just the way it is. Instead of embracing political figures who are somehow or another better than us, we subconsciously shun them, because they aren't as flawed as we'd like. Clinging to these outdated archetypes of atonement, or hyper-masculinity, or Christian redemption may keep us from seeing that excellence comes in many forms and results from many different scripts.
Obama, and even Hillary Clinton, have challenged the outdated character frames we expect to see in our political figures. As much as Obama bucks the fallen and forgiven leader model, Clinton challenges the idea of president-as-father-figure, a notion perhaps most exemplified by Ronald Reagan.
One day, I hope that we see politicians who are better than us and feel safer, knowing that the best and brightest are our leaders. I hope that we lose the need to measure our leaders by subtle tests of masculinity, toughness, and Christian faith. I hope that we start to realize that real leadership is exemplified by actually leading, not by adhering to sentimental story lines.
When endorsing Obama, Colin Powell said of allegations that Obama was a Muslim, (which were direct attempts to appeal to an archetype of president as strong Christian leader), "What does it matter?" To so many other pointless questions we ask our leaders, and unneeded expectations we hang around their necks, hopefully one day, those exact words will be our stock answer.