The New York Times recently ran an essay by Frank Bruni that made some excellent points. This presidential race is shaping up to be one devoid of a story, and story is how we live. Human beings need a compelling narrative. Barack Obama had one in 2008, the first black man to run for president, the man for change, the man for hope. He wasn’t totally convincing. I’m not sure when the book gets written or the movie made, if the audience will find his story a bit trite, or contrived. He made the attempt to fashion a narrative, and it worked. He got elected.
Bruni writes: “If you have any kind of heart, you’re struck by it: the photograph of Barack Obama bent down so that a young black boy can touch his head and see if the president’s hair is indeed like his own.” Yes, a nice, photogenic moment that tells a story. “And that gives many voters an emotional connection to him that they simply don’t have to most other politicians, including Romney, a privileged and intensely private man whose strengths don’t include the easy ability to humanize himself,” says Bruni.
Mitt Romney doesn’t have a story to tell, and that is why he won’t win in November. Politics might be about many different things, but it is most certainly about the narrative. He who tells the most convincing story, wins. Bill Clinton had a Dickensian, rags-to-riches story: raised by a single parent in a poor Arkansas backwater to become a Rhodes scholar and meet John F. Kennedy. George W. Bush had a good one: an alcoholic who finds Jesus and turns his life around to become president. Ronald Reagan spent his whole life crafting stories first as an actor and then as president, the ultimate heroic figure, although much credit goes to his writers. George H.W. Bush didn’t have a story, and got elected on Reagan’s coat tails, only lasting a term. Jimmy Carter lost his narrative thread during his single term, and he failed to bring off the heroic rescue in Iran. Americans are not cool with heroes who fail.
Bruni finds Romney to be an enigma: “he hasn’t succeeded in rummaging through his biography for the sorts of broadly inspirational chapters that can help a candidate bond with voters.” He was a school bully and jokester, the eternal frat boy who never grew up. Now he is a middle-aged vanilla wafer who cannot seem to muster a strong story about anything, except amassing a fortune and paying far less taxes than nearly everyone else in America. He is famous for being a Massachusetts governor, where he was, evidently, a completely different human being who just so happened to have the same name as the presidential candidate. Oh, and he did organize the Salt Lake City Olympics. With that story, he should be a shoo-in for president, right? And whenever he opens his mouth, he crashes the story. He is so prone to verbal flubs that he should never be trusted with any narrative thread, including giving directions or explaining recipes. His greatest hits sound bites are entertainment for us, and fuel for the debates in the Obama camp.
Obama, however, has his own narrative shortfalls. He can’t seem to tell the right story. His staff does not “invoke his rational identity all that frequently,” says Bruni. I feel that despite all the hoopla that greets his State of the Union speeches and other public orations, he is not an especially compelling speaker, nor a particular empathetic figure. Clinton was so much better at kissing the babies and hugging the storm victims. President Obama, quite often, looks as if he wishes he were anywhere else but here. The cool swagger does not seem genuine. The singing feels forced.
I wonder if a great man or woman could become president today. More and more, our politicians operate on another plane of existence while most of us toil day in and day out, worried sick about the future. When watching the news, I can’t shake the profound feeling that a point is being missed. While our elected figures bog down in party politics and minutiae, the rest of us are scraping by out here. In short, the most compelling stories are not found in government, but in our lives. There you find true heroism. There is the epic struggle. There is inspiration, and a story that must be told.
When the book is written on these first decades of the 21st century, I believe the most compelling stories will be found in urban neighborhoods blighted by crime and violence. There will be achievement in, or in spite of, our failing schools. If we ever have another American century, I am afraid Mitt Romney, without a convincing narrative, will be lost to history. Barack Obama will be noted as the first black president. But the heroes will be teachers, visionaries, artists, and the people who tried to stand under enormous and crushing weight, who waged war against the collapsing economy, and who in the end, rebuilt this society from the ground up. Until then, we must tell our own stories and be our own heroes.