By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 24, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
The thunder of this year’s Fourth of July fireworks may provide brief respite from the partisan clamor over who is the truer patriot — John McCain or Barack Obama.
The battle lines are familiar. They were drawn during the Vietnam War, when McCain was a prisoner of war, and Obama but a child.
Four decades later, the contrast between two presidential candidates has never been starker.
Here is the grizzled former Navy flier who has vowed “I will never surrender in Iraq.” And there, the brash newcomer with the unlined face whose startling success already is the source of so much lump-in-the-throat pride in the genius of America.
A black father, a white mother and a name that couldn’t help but confound. But here he is, and here we are.
John McCain is a classical patriot.
On the Fourth, he could deliver Thucydides’ “Funeral Oration of Pericles” virtually verbatim, changing only “Athens” to “America.”
It would fit, to a T.
Pericles, the Athenian statesman and military commander, delivered the oration — as recorded by the historian Thucydides — in 431 B.C., to honor those killed in the first year of what would be a very long war with Sparta. It is a paean to courage, duty and honor, but also to what Pericles proclaimed to be the uniquely Athenian virtues of democracy, freedom, tolerance and opportunity. And it is an exhortation to fight and die for the glory of an empire determined in its might — and required by its sense of superiority — to lead the world.
As his choice of Independence Day material, Barack Obama might want something a bit more contemporary, like the 1938 poem “Let America Be America Again.” Written by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, it is a plaintive call for America to eschew empty patriotism and live up to its founding ideals:
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty
“Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
“But opportunity is real, and life is free,
“Equality is in the air we breathe.”
“Yes We Can,” cried the Obama campaign, as if in reply to Hughes’ lament.
Or, as Obama put it in a speech he delivered in Independence, Mo., Monday on the meaning of patriotism, “What makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better.”
Almost all Americans consider themselves to be very patriotic, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington. But Pew has also found that Democrats and Republicans have discernibly different tendencies in the tenor of the patriotism.
Republicans tend to be far more likely than Democrats to believe “we all should be willing to fight for our country … right or wrong,” and to support the use of pre-emptive military force. They are less likely to care what the rest of the world thinks of us. (According to a recent Pew survey of citizens in 24 countries, the rest of the world prefers Obama to McCain.)
Over time, as Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer write in their book “The True Patriot,” those different tendencies have hardened into a caricature that “says the right loves America, and the left looks down on it. It says conservatives are proud to wave the flag and proclaim America to be the best, and liberals, embarrassed by the whole chest-thumping spectacle, complain about America’s errors.”
“Most Americans never bought into these simplistic world-views — these caricatures of left and right,” said Obama in his Independence, Mo., speech. “Most Americans understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic, and that there is nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America’s traditions and institutions.”
But such caricatures found unfortunate resonance for the Obama campaign in February, when Michelle Obama declared, “For the first time in my adult life I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
Before and since, said Liu, who supports Obama, nearly every assault on the Illinois senator has sought to blemish his patriotism, to pose the question, “Is he American enough?”
“This is going to be the dominant frame of the general election,” said Liu, who served as a speechwriter and senior domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, and who believes Obama must do a better job of articulating an unself-conscious “progressive patriotism” founded on “deeds and choices we have to make for the good of the country.”
With the notable exception of Bill Clinton, Democrats in recent decades have proved hapless in defending themselves from this kind of attack, according to Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and author of “The Political Brain.”
Four years ago, the Democrats chose Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as their standard-bearer at least in part because they thought his Vietnam War record would inoculate him from attacks on his patriotism.
They were wrong.
Kerry’s record was attacked by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and, said Westen, Kerry’s slow and ineffectual response proved he wasn’t the leader America was looking for.
Indeed, even earlier in the campaign, the right wing had “swift-boated” Kerry’s choice of “Let America Be America Again” to be his campaign slogan, with a media blitz describing Langston Hughes as in the thrall of Stalin when he wrote the poem. Kerry retreated.
But in Obama, Westen sees a candidate “light-years ahead” of Kerry in his charisma and political touch, and, in his March 18 speech on race in Philadelphia — “A More Perfect Union” — the makings of his own patriotic narrative.
“He began to talk about what it means to strive for a more perfect union,” said Westen, and framing his candidacy in a manner that made you think, “Wouldn’t the Founding Fathers be smiling today if they could see this?”
“His story is an ‘only in America story,’ an American dream story. His candidacy is only possible in America,” Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, author of “The Political Mind,” wrote after the Philadelphia speech. “How could he be anything but patriotic when he is America? And how can we, identifying with him, be anything but patriotic when we are America?”
In his Monday speech, “The America I Love,” Obama described how, “For a young man of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father’s steadying hand, it is this essential American idea — that we are not constrained by accident of birth but can make of our lives as we will — that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans.”
In this and other speeches, Obama has fleshed out a definition of patriotism founded on caring, interdependence and mutual sacrifice. In his first TV ad of the general election campaign, titled “The Country I Love,” he talks about “treating your neighbor as you’d like to be treated.”
Victor Davis Hanson, a classics scholar and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said America has yet to get a good fix on Obama. Is he messianic, hollow or whole?
His patriotic appeal, said Hanson, is “not based on anything he’s done, but on who he is.” Vote for me and make America a better land.
“It’s the difference between action and essence,” said Hanson. McCain flew bombing missions over North Vietnam. He was shot down and held prisoner for 51/2 years. “He was tortured, and performed amazingly well under torture,” said Hanson.
From childhood, McCain was drawn to tragic heroes. In his 2003 book “Worth the Fighting For,” he recalled as a 12-year-old boy chancing upon “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and falling in love with the “beautiful fatalism” of a Hemingway hero.
The Arizona senator begins “Worth the Fighting For” with a quote from Pericles’ funeral oration: “Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honor in action.”
But, as a poster named Andrew Case noted in a 2006 discussion of the oration on the blog Obsidian Wings, it bears mentioning that Pericles was leading Athens toward ultimate disaster. Pericles’ description of Athens “is a grotesque distortion of the arrogant, greedy, selfish city that brought about its own destruction through high-handedness towards its allies, overconfidence, and just plain stupidity.”
The takeaway for today is plain: “Self-deception is crucial to creating an imperialist democracy,” wrote Case. “Liberals who criticize U.S. actions are doing exactly what is necessary to avoid the fate of Athens. Self-deception leads to self-destruction.”
And yet, the lesson for the 2008 campaign is not so clear. After all, nearly 2,500 years later, how is it that Pericles’ patriotic oratory still soars and resounds?