And so it begins, the campaign proper. You probably guessed that there would be no letup in this relentless year, no break between the primaries and the general election, that both candidates would stay on the screen. You were right. They will not leave, and go, and rest. They feel they can’t, it’s inch by inch, slow and steady wins the race. This robs them of the power of disappearance. You disappear and then come back and people say, “Hey, look at that guy.” They listen anew after a break in the drone.
Not this time. And maybe never again.
For Barack Obama this week, a Beltway setback. He chose for a key position a D.C. insider who got fat working the system. This was a poor decision by the candidate of change. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But Jim Johnson was removed with dispatch, and the country didn’t notice. Beltway bottom line: Mr. Obama the cool customer had a problem, removed the problem, has no problem.
John McCain had a worse time, with the famously awkward speech in front of the background whose color was variously compared to snot, puke and lime Jell-O. He was scored for not being adept with a teleprompter. The press knocked him, essentially, for not being smooth and manipulative enough. But if he were good at the teleprompter, they’d complain that he’s too smooth and scripted.
The press will be nice to him again. When he’s 17 points down.
It should not count against a man that he has not fully mastered the artifice of his profession. Then again, he should have nailed the prompter by now. Such things show a certain competence. Voters are slower to trust you with big things if they see a lack of skill in small things. In this vein, a suggestion. Podiums always seem to swallow Mr. McCain. He has limited mobility with his arms because of his torture in Vietnam. It restricts his ability to gesture. And he is not a big man. He often looks like he’s flailing up there: I’m not waving, I’m drowning! His staff should build a podium for him, one that fits, and take it wherever he goes. For a seal, the great state of Arizona, which he has represented in the U.S. Senate for 22 years. Let him master the podium five months out. Other masteries will follow.
The lay of the land? Mr. Obama is ahead 47% to 41% in this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, and no one is surprised. Everyone knows he’s ahead. Everyone knows this is a Democratic year. But I think there are two particular subtexts this year, or perhaps I should say texts. One, obviously, is youth versus age. This theme is the clearest it’s been since 1960, when the old general who’d planned the Normandy invasion found himself replaced by a young man who had commanded a rickety patrol torpedo boat in World War II. You know that on some level, at some moment, Dwight D. Eisenhower looked at John F. Kennedy and thought: Punk.
But 2008 will also prove in part to be a decisive political contest between the Old America and the New America. Between the thing we were, and the thing we have been becoming for 40 years or so. (I’m not referring here to age. Some young Americans have Old America heads and souls; some old people are all for the New.)
Mr. McCain is the Old America, of course; Mr. Obama the New.
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In the Old America, love of country was natural. You breathed it in. You either loved it or knew you should.
In the New America, love of country is a decision. It’s one you make after weighing the pros and cons. What you breathe in is skepticism and a heightened appreciation of the global view.
Old America: Tradition is a guide in human affairs. New America: Tradition is a challenge, a barrier, or a lovely antique.
The Old America had big families. You married and had children. Life happened to you. You didn’t decide, it decided. Now it’s all on you. Old America, when life didn’t work out: “Luck of the draw!” New America when life doesn’t work: “I made bad choices!” Old America: “I had faith, and trust.” New America: “You had limited autonomy!”
Old America: “We’ve been here three generations.” New America: “You’re still here?”
Old America: We have to have a government, but that doesn’t mean I have to love it. New America: We have to have a government and I am desperate to love it. Old America: Politics is a duty. New America: Politics is life.
The Old America: Religion is good. The New America: Religion is problematic. The Old: Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. The New: I’ll sue.
Mr. McCain is the old world of concepts like “personal honor,” of a manliness that was a style of being, of an attachment to the fact of higher principles.
Mr. Obama is the new world, which is marked in part by doubt as to the excellence of the old. It prizes ambivalence as proof of thoughtfulness, as evidence of a textured seriousness.
Both Old and New America honor sacrifice, but in the Old America it was more essential, more needed for survival both personally (don’t buy today, save for tomorrow) and in larger ways.
The Old and New define sacrifice differently. An Old America opinion: Abjuring a life as a corporate lawyer and choosing instead community organizing, a job that does not pay you in money but will, if you have political ambitions, provide a base and help you win office, is not precisely a sacrifice. Political office will pay you in power and fame, which will be followed in time by money (see Clinton, Bill). This has more to do with timing than sacrifice. In fact, it’s less a sacrifice than a strategy.
A New America answer: He didn’t become a rich lawyer like everyone else—and that was a sacrifice! Old America: Five years in a cage—that’s a sacrifice!
In the Old America, high value was put on education, but character trumped it. That’s how Lincoln got elected: Honest Abe had no formal schooling. In Mr. McCain’s world, a Harvard Ph.D. is a very good thing, but it won’t help you endure five years in Vietnam. It may be a comfort or an inspiration, but it won’t see you through. Only character, and faith, can do that. And they are very Old America.
Old America: candidates for office wear ties. New America: Not if they’re women. Old America: There’s a place for formality, even the Beatles wore jackets!
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I weigh this in favor of the Old America. Hard not to, for I remember it, and its sterling virtues. Maybe if you are 25 years old, your sense of the Old and New is different. In the Old America they were not enlightened about race and sex; they accepted grim factory lines and couldn’t even begin to imagine the Internet. Fair enough. But I suspect the political playing out of a long-ongoing cultural and societal shift is part of the dynamic this year.
As to its implications for the race, we’ll see. America is always looking forward, not back, it is always in search of the fresh and leaving the tried. That’s how we started: We left tired old Europe and came to the new place, we settled the east and pushed West to the new place. We like new. It’s in our genes. Hope we know where we’re going, though.