I watched the Obama acceptance speech last night with a keen eye to one of the things I teach in my composition classes, or at least have taught, for the last few years: the concept of candidate mythology. I was particularly interested in this and came away with two impressions. Obama's acceptance speech seemed to focus on two primary mythologies: savior and man of the people. Keep in mind, as I tell students whenever we discuss mythology, that whether a myth is true or false is irrelevant. Mythologies are pretty much the same as ethos, or persona. It's the person we think the person is.
Obama worked the "man of the people" mythology by focusing on his family story, his absent father and struggling single mother who did pretty much everything right, being raised by grandparents, working his way through school, achieving the American dream through hard work and helping working class people deal with the fallout of an economy that it would be silly to anthropomorphize (can I make that a verb?). He would have been able to cinch this mythology were his mother still alive, and his grandparents able to make their way to the stage at the end of the speech. Certainly he made it clear he had no privileged upbringing, no legacy admission to an elite school (as is the case for McCain and the Naval Academy thanks to an admiral father and grandfather who both graduated from the Academy). He made his own way to an elite education, the epitome of the American Dream.
The "savior" mythology was borne of Obama's repudiation of everything Republican and/or McCain from the last eight years. The whole gambling on "10 percent of change" point he made as a result of McCain voting in-synch with the Bush admin for 90 percent of the time. It was the war, the economy, health care, the environment and just about anything else of significance, anything a voter might find of concern. The big problem with this mythology, in the long run and if Obama is elected, is that he really can't save anyone from anything. The promises are all pretty tall orders, and the results uncertain at best. Coupled with the messages of change and hope, he will have to be a superhuman, extraordinary president or else he will be deemed a failure by his critics. There is clear political danger in over-promising and under-delivering. The savior mythology makes it hard to be realistic in assessing success and failure, because no matter how lofty the goal, falling just a bit short can be tagged as failure by critics.
This morning's news means the upcoming election will result in a historic outcome. We'll either have our first Black president or first woman vice-president. I can't help but view McCain's choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as something of a cynical ploy, hoping to lure disaffected Hillary Clinton supports into the Republican camp. Palin and Clinton are as alike as Obama and McCain. Any Clinton supporter who decides to vote for McCain simply because Palin is a woman is a dupe. She has nothing to offer a Clinton supporter other than her sex. She is everything an arch-conservative could long for. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition was singing her praises, and that should make it clear to any Clinton supporter that voting for McCain/Palin would be a sorry mistake. Still, this will make for an interesting campaign in the next months, seeing how it all plays out.
Finally, I was hoping Obama would use a particular line from Martin Luther King, Jr. last night, but he didn't. King's peroration,or some homage to it, would have done Obama well:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Being an atheist, I probably would have appreciated a taking out of the God business, but other than that, I can't imagine a better way for Obama to have wrapped things up and kicked off the general election campaign.