The end of placeness is one of the features of the campaign. I do not like it.
Pretend you are not a political sophisticate and regular watcher of the presidential race as it unfolds on all media platforms. Pretend, that is, that you are normal.
OK, quick, close your eyes. Where is Barack Obama from?
He’s from Young. He’s from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He’s from TV.
John McCain? He’s from Military. He’s from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state.
Chicago? That’s where Mr. Obama wound up. Modern but Midwestern: a perfect place to begin what might become a national career. Arizona? That’s where Mr. McCain settled, a perfect place from which to launch a more or less conservative career in the 1980s.
Neither man has or gives a strong sense of place in the sense that American politicians almost always have, since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, and Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and FDR of New York, and JFK of Massachusetts. Even Bill Clinton was from a town called Hope, in Arkansas, even if Hope was really Hot Springs. And in spite of his New England pedigree, George W. Bush was a Texan, as was, vividly, LBJ.
Messrs. Obama and McCain are not from a place, but from an experience. Mr. McCain of course was a Navy brat. He bounced around, as members of the families of our military must, and wound up for a time in the suburbs of Washington. Mr. Obama’s mother was somewhat itinerant, in search of different climes. He was born in Hawaii, which Americans on the continent don’t experience so much as a state as a destination, a place of physical beauty and singular culture. You go there to escape and enjoy. Then his great circling commenced: Indonesia, back to Hawaii, on to the western coast of America, then to the eastern coast, New York and Cambridge. He circled the continent, entering it, if you will, in Chicago, where he settled in his 30s.
The lack of placeness with both candidates contributes to a sense of their disjointedness, their floatingness. I was talking recently with a journalist who’s a podcaster. I often watch him in conversation on the Internet. I told him I’m always struck that he seems to be speaking from No Place, with some background of beige wall that could exist anywhere. He leans in and out of focus. It gives a sense of weightlessness. He’s like an astronaut floating without a helmet.
That’s a little what both candidates are like to me.
Mr. Obama hails from Chicago, but no one would confuse him with Chicagoans like Richard Daley or Dan Rostenkowski, or Harold Washington. “There is something colorless and odorless about him,” says a friend. “like an inert gas.” And Mr. McCain, in his experience, history and genes, is definitely military, and could easily come from Indiana or South Carolina or California, and could easily speak of upholding the values of those places.
What are the political implications of candidates seeming unconnected to regional roots, or being shorn of them? I suppose the question first surfaced in 2000, when Al Gore won the national popular vote and lost Tennessee, his home state. But he hadn’t ever really seemed of Tennessee. He was born and grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a senator. That was his formative experience. They liked him better in New York and California than down South.
They like Mr. Obama in Illinois, but he hasn’t locked up neighboring Michigan, just as Mr. McCain has strong support in Arizona but still lags in Colorado and New Mexico.
On a policy level, the end of placeness may have implications. It may, for instance, lead a president to more easily oppose pork-barrel spending. If you’re not quite from anywhere, you’ll be slower to build a bridge to nowhere. If you don’t feel the constant tug of Back Home—if it is your natural habit to think of the nation not first in specific and concrete terms but in abstract ones—then you might wind up less preoccupied by the needs and demands of the people Back Home. Mr. McCain is already a scourge of pork. Mr. Obama? Not clear. One doesn’t sense any regional tug on his policy.
All this is part of a national story that wasn’t new even a quarter century ago. Americans move. They like moving. Got a lot of problems? The answer may be geographical relocation. New problem in the new place? GTT. Gone to Texas.
It’s in us. And yet.
I was at a gathering a few weeks ago for an aged Southern sage, a politico with an accent so thick you have to lean close and concentrate to understand every word, so thick, as they used to say, you could pour it on pancakes. Most of the people there were from the South, different ages and generations but Southerners—the men grounded and courteous in a certain way, the women sleeveless and sexy in a certain way. There was a lot of singing and toasting and drinking, and this was the thing: Even as an outsider, you knew them. They were Mississippi Delta people—Mizz-izz-DEHLT people—and the sense of placeness they brought into the room with them was sweet to me. It allowed you to know them, in the same way that at a gathering of, say, Irish Catholics from the suburbs of Boston, you would be able to know them, pick up who they are, with your American antennae. You grow up, move on, and bring the Delta with you, but as each generation passes, the Delta disappears, as in time the ward and the parish disappear.
I miss the old geographical vividness. But we are national now, and in a world so global that at the Olympics, when someone wins, wherever he is from, whatever nation or culture, he makes the same movements with his arms and face to mark his victory. South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan moves just like Michael Phelps, with the “Yes!” and the arms shooting upward and the fists. This must be good. Why does it feel like a leveling? Like a squashing and squeezing down of the particular, local and authentic.
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I end with a thought on the upcoming announcements of vice presidential picks. Major props to both campaigns for keeping it tight, who it’s going to be, for by now they should know and have, please God, fully vetted him or her. On the Democrats, who are up first, I firmly announce I like every name floated so far, for different reasons (Joe Biden offers experience and growth; Evan Bayh seems by nature moderate; Sam Nunn is that rare thing, a serious man whom all see as a serious man.) But part of me tugs for Tim Kaine of Virginia, because he has a wonderful American Man haircut, not the cut of the man in first but the guy in coach who may be the air marshal. He looks like he goes once every 10 days to Jimmy Hoffa’s barber and says, “Gimme a full Detroit.”