Friday, January 11, 2008

Candidate with a Thousand Faces

Let me just add something to Rob’s excellent post on narrative and the primaries. I have felt for a while that the purpose of American presidential campaigns is not to select politicians but to create heroes, with the model based on the typologies set out by Joseph Campbell in his classic work of comparative mythology, Hero With A Thousand Faces. The archetypal campaign story is that a candidate born in obscurity, recognizes his or her special gifts, and heeds a call to service. Then a series of trials and tribulations follow, in which the hero gains experience from success, and wisdom from failure, until the candidate is of sufficient stature to kill a dragon, rescue a princess (or prince), or run for president.

This campaign mythology comes in several versions, from the rags to riches story (Lincoln remains the model for this version), the conquering military hero (Washington to McCain), the overconfident insider overcoming adversity and discovering humility (JFK, George W. Bush), the clever outsider overcoming the bias against those who don’t seem to belong (Obama), and doubtless there are many more paths to glory, each with a chapter in America’s epic version of the Kalevala and Nibelungenlied. Unfortunately for Hillary, there is no place for the loyal spouse in the standard categories of American heroism.

And of course the reductio ad absurdum in this creation of faux presidential heroes is W., who evidently really believed because he was elected president he had to lead a war to burn the topmost towers of Illium, or someplace in that general vicinity, despite having an Achilles heel that stretched from ears to his toes. If we want elect presidents that will try to be heroes, the current primary system, or some equally unworkable version, will do just fine. To get what we need, campaigns that focus on important issues, in which the life story of the candidates is at best a tertiary concern, we need to rethink the presidency and its constitutional framework as a whole.

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