As both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain
ponder their vice-presidential running mates — Obama is expected to name his No. 2 before this weekend and McCain has announced he will do it August 29 — voters are still taking their measure of the two presidential candidates.
Issues matter. So do partisan affiliations. But, unless one candidate or another is perceived as on the mainstream policy fringe (as Sens. Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972), a high percentage of voters in a presidential election cast their ballots on the basis of their gut feelings about the candidates' characters.
Their questions: Who are these candidates? Do I connect to them personally? Would I have confidence in them in an international or domestic crisis? Is there something about them which inspires my trust or provokes uneasiness?
Those questions were usefully addressed over the past few days in two extended television specials, on Fox News
, probing Obama's and McCain's biographies. They included question-and-answer sessions with the candidates.
The specials, in a way, were surprising. Fox notoriously tilts to the conservative side in its coverage. CNN tilts liberal. Yet, if anything, the Fox special was tougher and more probing about McCain than was the CNN program. It also, of course, had a sharper edge in its Obama coverage. Both extended specials went back to the candidates' parents and grandparents, childhoods, courtships and marriages, and personal lives as well as to their better documented political careers. People who knew and had observed them, before they became famous, were interviewed at length.
Having watched the specials, and absorbed much other material about them, one can see how Obama and McCain came to their present values and politics. Obama, the child of a biracial marriage, was raised in cosmopolitan settings — principally by his idealistic mother and, then, by his white grandparents — and spent his early years as an outsider trying to find himself. He was inspired by civil-rights and other leaders for progressive change. He found an outlet in basketball. Yet he drifted for awhile as a teenager on the edge of the drug culture. After slow-starting academically, he bore down hard during his time at Columbia College
and, then, Harvard Law School
. Those academic experiences, in particular, have made it easy for previous supporters of such candidates as Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy and Bill Bradley to find common intellectual ground with him.
McCain, by contrast
, grew up in a family in which his future seemed predetermined. His father and grandfather were senior Naval officers. He would go to Annapolis and likewise spend a career in the Navy. Yet, during McCain's secondary-school and Naval Academy years, he was a notorious rule-breaker and disciplinary problem
. He finished fifth from the bottom in his graduating class at Annapolis and probably would have been expelled along the way had his family lineage not worked in his favor. As a Naval fighter pilot, post-Annapolis, he also was a rule breaker, crashing planes, not doing his homework, drinking, and womanizing. But, underneath, was a serious side. His friends, classmates and fellow officers describe a John McCain who at the same time devoured serious history books and showed a literary side. (It is possible to see McCain, breaking free of his family's expectations, becoming a coach and English or history teacher at a secondary school or small college. He really did not want to go to Annapolis, McCain confided in his CNN interview, but would have preferred to enter the University of Virginia or a private college to study literature).
These two dissimilar men, however, shared the sine qua non for national political success: Burning ambitions. Those ambitions sometimes had unattractive aspects.
Obama left Harvard Law not for a Supreme Court clerkship or big-paying New York law firm but came home to Chicago to jump quite quickly into politics. He ruffled feathers along the way by pushing aside respected, better known black leaders. He got backing from a notorious Chicago fixer who also helped him buy his home. He won his state Senate seat by seeing to the disqualification of ballot-petition signatures of the favorite in the election — a black woman respected for her long community leadership — which resulted in her being thrown off the ballot. In the state Senate he voted
"present" frequently on controversial issues, rather than yes or no, and curried favor with senior leaders who could help his career. In other words, he quickly mastered The Chicago Way. He won his U.S. Senate seat when his principal opponents fell victim to scandal. In 2000, he was unable to secure credentials at the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles and went home to Chicago. In 2004, he gave a stirring keynote speech at the same convention, which jet-launched his career.
McCain, after his release from a North Vietnamese POW camp, returned home to find that his wife, who had faithfully stood by him during his captivity, had been seriously injured in an auto accident. By his own admission, he immediately began womanizing. He met at a reception Cindy Hensley
, heiress to a multimillion-dollar Arizona beer distributorship, and romanced her. He and Cindy took out a marriage license while he still was married to his first wife. The Hensleys employed McCain as a "public relations" man for their beer distributorship, but he spent his time getting media and political exposure in Arizona. When Rep. John Rhodes announced his retirement, McCain and his wife bought a home in his congressional district the following day, and McCain announced for the vacant seat. In following years, McCain became known in the U.S. House and then Senate as a prickly, independent and often unpleasant colleague. He was one of the Keating Five
U.S. Senators associated with seeking favors for Charles Keating, the S&L king and an Arizona resident, when Keating's empire collapsed. The Hensleys and Keatings had been best friends and vacation partners. Cindy Hensley was an investment partner of Keating's. Yet McCain presented himself as simply intervening on Keating's behalf, as he would have for any Arizona constituent. (McCain, ironically, was known in Arizona as someone who did little for his constituents but focused on his national ambitions). In 2000, after his defeat in Republican presidential primaries by Gov. George W. Bush, McCain flirted for a time with changing his affiliation from Republican to Democrat and held serious discussions with Democratic Senate leaders about such a shift.
Both Obama and McCain, as they rose, showed themselves capable of outrightly reversing themselves on issues where they previously had established high visibility — even to the point, in McCain's case, of considering a change of party.
If their stories stopped there
, it would be easy to call for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or some other alternative candidate, to step forward. But presidents and presidential candidates, as the rest of us, have more than one side to them. Some have had virtuous personal lives (think of Jimmy Carter) but have been failures in office. Others have been rounders personally but effective national leaders. Few have been Perfect in Every Way.
What I drew from the television specials — and have drawn from other extended accounts of Obama's and McCain's prior public and private lives — is that both men can be charged with hyper-ambition and periodic expediency but that both also have strong impulses toward public service and a capacity to lead.
Watching the specials, as millions of others did, I found myelf being drawn on a personal basis to Obama, whose candidacy I already supported. I identify with his biography and his Only in America rise to national leadership. I respect his obvious intelligence and communications skills. His aspirations for the country resonate with me. When he speaks, I hear echoes of prior speeches by John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. His intonations and cadences — and even choices of words — are almost eerily like Humphrey's, whose speeches I wrote for several years. For me, Obama is like coming home.
Yet I recognize that, for others of a different mind, the specials drew them to McCain. His story, too, has an appeal — the sometimes willful and entitled chosen son who finally, after personal ordeals and painful experience, finds himself and his calling. Perhaps, you think, he has learned and grown along the way. I regard his temperament as being unsuited to the presidency. But others clearly will disagree.
We have a couple ambitious
, sometimes outrightly manipulative men in this presidential race. Hardly something new in presidential candidates. Obama, our first biracial presidential candidate, also is a man of nuance and unique experience. McCain is the fighter-pilot prototype, impatient, aggressive, a can-doer with little patience for nuance. Both men have lived more interesting lives than most of their predecessors and thus bring something extra to the process this year.