The Triumph of Narrative

This has been about as interesting and unpredictable a presidential primary campaign as any political junkie could have hoped for, and few would be foolish enough to say they know for certain what will happen next. But at the moment, Barack Obama has momentum and a lead in delegates, and Hillary Clinton will have to pull out overwhelming victories in nearly every contest from here to the end of the primaries if she is to become the Democratic nominee. Though we may or may not have reached the end of the unexpected upsets and dramatic reversals of the primaries, much less the general election to come, there is no doubt that of all the people who ran for president this year, Obama has run the smartest and most skilled campaign. But of all the things he has done right, none may be more important than the fact that he has told far and away the best story.

This is a topic I addressed in two previous columns, and now that one nominee is chosen and the other will be soon (at least within a few months), it seemed appropriate to revisit the question of the narratives the candidates have built (the first installment is here, and the second is here). Those columns were written in July, but even before that—indeed, as long ago as his explosion into national consciousness at the Democratic convention in 2004—Obama has been telling a story perfectly keyed to the current moment in history.

As Obama tells it, the country is held hostage by a political class that sows partisan and cultural division, making solving problems ever more difficult, while the country yearns for a new day of unity. As the youngest candidate, the only post-boomer candidate, the only bi-racial candidate, and the one candidate with a preternatural ability to obtain the good will of those who disagree with him, he can bring all Americans together and lead us to a future built on hope.

Your own reaction to that story may be a quickening of the heartbeat, or a disgusted '"Give me a break.'" But there is no denying that many, many people are willing to sign on to it. And though he is careful not to say it himself, Obama''s story benefits greatly from how often other people say that he is a Man of Destiny. This is a story we know well, because we have read it and watched it so many times before. When Luke gazes out across the barren desert of Tatooine, the wind rustling in his hair as the twin suns set and the music swells, we know just what it means, even if he doesn''t know it yet. He is The One, he will defeat the forces of evil and save the galaxy. And from the beginning of Obama's career, people have been saying the same thing about him. Here is just one small example of how the epic story was being written, from a 2004 New Yorker article:

[Illinois congresswoman] Jan Schakowsky told me about a recent visit she had made to the White House with a congressional delegation. On her way out, she said, President Bush noticed her "Obama" button. "He jumped back, almost literally," she said. "And I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a 'b.' And I explained who he was. The President said, 'Well, I don't know him.' So I just said, 'You will.' "

Truly the stuff of a great epic, one whose end is inevitable. And the same kind of story was told about Bill Clinton not too long ago. Well before he announced his candidacy, Democrats in the know were talking about this frighteningly talented Arkansas governor who could one day be president. His 1992 ads featured him telling the story of meeting President Kennedy in 1963 at the White House at an event for Boys Nation, an organization of future leaders. The picture of the two shaking hands was everywhere in that campaign, almost as if Kennedy's last act before being struck down was to single out the young Clinton and pass the fate of the earth to him, an electric charge of destiny coursing from the hand of the great and doomed king to the boy who barely knew what awaited him.

That was a great story, one pointing to the future Clinton presidency as the fulfillment of what fate had ordained. The one nominee we're certain of today, on the other hand, has stumbled to his party's nod without even demonstrating that he knows he needs a story, much less offering one. John McCain will be the GOP nominee not because his campaign displayed any particular practical skill or strategic brilliance; he merely stuck around until one by one, his opponents' fundamental unpalatability became clear to Republican voters. He didn't have a terrific organization, he didn't air persuasive television ads, and his message made no one swoon. But he was less creepy than Giuliani, less phony than Romney, less somnambulant than Thompson, less hucksterish than Huckabee.

McCain told an interesting story when he ran for president in 2000: the system was corrupt, and with his unmatched courage, independence, and integrity, he would rid Washington of its blood-sucking influence peddlers. But in this campaign he has told no story at all. What is the problem McCain's presidency is supposed to solve? Why is he the only one who can solve it? These are the questions to which winning campaigns know and communicate the answers. McCain doesn't even seem to have thought about them.

And what he communicates about himself is tethered firmly to the past. As much as his Vietnam suffering and courage gives him a halo with the pundit class, the key moment in McCain's personal story happened forty years ago. It does not connect to anything the public wants out of their next president. And the more he talks about the present and the future, the worse he does. While last week he criticized Barack Obama by saying the Democrat's speeches are "singularly lacking in specifics," few candidates on either side have been as vague as John McCain. How many people could tell you just what it is McCain wants to do if he becomes president, apart from staying in Iraq for a really long time?

And if he should find himself facing Obama, McCain will discover that his own weaknesses fit in neatly with the story Obama tells. Where Obama is young, dynamic and optimistic, McCain is old, subdued, and prone to telling voters that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, McCain offers no indication of where we as citizens fit into his story, what a vote for him is supposed to say about us. And this is precisely where Hillary Clinton has had trouble countering Obama, despite her prodigious policy knowledge and disciplined campaigning. The Clinton campaign has made few mistakes, but it hasn't had nearly as much success as Obama’s in defining what a vote for her means on the symbolic level. Caught in the classic double bind of female politicians—defy gender stereotypes by being tough and strong, and you're a shrew threatening fragile male egos; play into gender stereotypes and you're too weak to be commander in chief—Clinton has struggled to define her own story. Instead, she has offered multiple variations on a theme, most of which have been reactions to Obama. He was the candidate of change, so she became the candidate whose experience would enable her to achieve change. He gives great speeches, so she now says, "My opponent makes speeches. I offer solutions." There may be merit in that argument. But it is an argument, not a story.

When you read a really good story, you sometimes reach the point where you almost forget that you're reading at all. When that happens, you experience the story in a fundamentally different way, as though you have entered it, and instead of taking place outside you, it proceeds around you, and you feel everything the story evokes more deeply and profoundly. Scholars who study narrative call this transportation. While as readers we are affected differently by different stories because of our own experiences and values, a more skillfully crafted story—one told with beautiful language, compelling characters, and emotions that resonate in ourselves—will be able to transport many more readers than a poorly told tale.

The most successful political narratives are not only clear and compelling, but make us feel as though we are part of the story as well. It isn't necessary for the story itself to address us directly as citizens. Some do—for instance, when John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask what they could do for their country, he was explicitly encouraging them to join in his efforts to create a new era in American history. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, didn't portray his candidacy as a movement or ask voters to do anything in particular, but the bygone America he described always resided in regular folks, drawing his story around the voters.

Hillary Clinton still has a chance to seize control of the race and become the Democratic nominee. And it's likely that either she or Barack Obama could beat John McCain in the general election without too much trouble. But if Obama does win, it will be because Democratic voters, and then the wider electorate, found themselves transported by his story.

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