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Jul 30, 2004 9:28 am


Biographical Narrative as Political Qualification



Jean-Paul Sartre said,"Childhood decides." But there are always some who transcend their origins, or who fail to live up to their promise, or who do both.

In the 1960s, as I understand it, there was a brief flourishing of psychohistory -- not history by psychotics (insert your own diagnosis of our profession in comments), but history which tried to integrate the teachings of psychology, then considered something of a science, into biographical analysis. The idea, it seems, was to attempt to explain the adult character, particularly historically important working relationships and modes of behavior, by the study of childhood through the lens of the (mostly Freudian) ideas of formative early relationships. This field died out pretty quickly, mostly because, as it turns out, developmental psychology was a long way from being a predictive science, at least in the hands of historians. I've wondered, though, if some of the current popularity of biographical writing doesn't date back to that era. And, thanks primarily to social and women's' historians, there is a resurgence in the study of childhood as a distinct life stage and social phenomenon which is broadening our understanding of cultural creativity and transmission, development, play, education, family, etc. Fantastic stuff, really, including creative use of sources, and the kind of historical recreation that brings the past alive and raises new questions. But biography is not destiny: that's why psychohistory is no longer a graduate field anywhere.

What seemed like a current fad, to me, the presentation of personal history as political qualification, turns out to be part of a long-standing tradition of presidential marketing. The author, a professor of journalism, takes no particular stance on the idea of presidential packaging, and even an idealist like myself admits that there's a gray area between empty marketing and persuasive presentation. But the hubbub over Barack Obama's convention speech has helped me define at least my limits.

My colleague, Ralph Luker, is a scholar of the civil rights movement, and as such is an expert on some of the finest rhetoric ever produced in English. When he proclaims Obama's convention speech"one of the great speeches of our time" it carries some weight, and others on bothsides of the political divide agree. But I read the speech, and I saw the speech, and disagreed slightly:

I'm not that moved by personal narrative in a politician. Maybe it's cold of me to say it, but I don't care if their background is 'all American' or whatever it is they're trying to present. That stuff is just too easy to say, to mythologize, to essentialize, to pick and choose and sentimentalize. I want to know what they believe, and sometimes personal history is useful, and I want to know what they can do and I want to know what they will do, and rarely is personal/family history, at least the parts they put in a speech like this, a great predictor of those things. 'Vote for me because I had the right kind of parents' doesn't work for me.

The ending was more effective, for me, because it was about values and missions and goals, and correcting the path which we are lurching down. In other words, it was stuff I agree with (in part because of my own upbringing, with folk music and all) presented with some real energy and flair and eloquence. It was a fine statement of principles and values. It was also a campaign speech, and that wouldn't have bothered me quite as much if it had been just a bit broader: it was about Obama, which was to be expected, and about Kerry/Edwards (again, lots of personal history), which was to be expected; but it wasn't about the Democratic Party, or about winning back Congress, or about state-level elections or getting out the vote.

John Edwards' speech last night was much more the kind of thing I like to hear, a mix of values, priorities and plans which gives us something to talk about concretely, some sense that the issues have been thought through, presented well. There was more 'vote for Kerry because he went to Vietnam', which increasingly reminds me of Robert Maynard Hutchins critique of tenure:"There's no reason why the University [of Chicago] should be stuck with me at 51 because I was a promising young man at 30." (Yes, I know that a lot of this is aimed at people who haven't been paying attention yet, so the repetition serves a purpose. But a little more variation in theme and tone would be nice, for those of us who pay more attention) I do expect the ticket to be on a first-name basis, but there was also something a bit over-personal about Edwards' constant use of Kerry's, which is complicated a bit by the fact that they share a first name. But overall, it was a nicely balanced work, energetically presented, with a few, mostly successful, crowd response moments that kept people attentive and involved.

Whereas I thought Obama gave about a B+ performance (So does the Chicago Tribune), Edwards' was a solid A- for me. I hope Kerry follows suit, though Rick Shenkman, another person with excellent qualifications, disagrees. I'm getting used to it.

Update: Kerry's speech was about a B+, too, though for different reasons. It was too long (he was rushing the applause and cheering, instead of letting it build), included too much stuff (the stem cell research seemed particularly awkwardly inserted), but it did make a powerful case for the relevance of his war experience under current conditions: empathy. And he managed to be critical of the President (which a lot of commentators didn't really expect) by elucidating his own ideas about how we should have done things and how he would do things were he in a position to do so. He's not the speechmaker that Edwards is, but we knew that. He is, however, eminently qualified for the position of President in these troubled times.


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Richard Henry Morgan - 7/30/2004

My next door neighbor, a Wake graduate whose father really was a dirt-poor farmer, had the same reaction to Edwards. And if the polls are any indication, a good many people have the same reaction -- Kerry supposedly got no bounce even in Edwards' own state. Fair? No. No more fair than people's visceral reaction to what they take to be Bush's Faux Ft. Stockton manner.

Went to public and private schools, and a college every bit as snooty as Duke, but not quite as priviledged as Williams. And I would venture that there probably were indeed sons of millworkers at Duke, though there were few -- like me they probably washed dishes in college, or they played football. Among my college schoolmates was the state governor's son, and among my dishwashing mates were the sons of a tire salesman, a flower salesman, a fireman's son, and an electrician's son -- not exactly the cream of the social register, though we weren't the poorest there, and it lacks the cachet of millworker's son.

During my sophomore year, it was explained to me and others how a good friend of many of my classmates (he happened to be black), was blackballed from our fraternity. One of the sons of the South had stood up at the frat meeting and said he would have to quit the fraternity if the guy was admitted, not because he was opposed to blacks, you understand, but because his grandmother wouldn't pay his frat bill if he was admitted. It was conveyed to us that the entire fraternity was reduced to tears by his compelling story, and that the kid was unanimously blackballed, not because anybody was prejudiced, of course, but as a demonstration of sympathy and solidarity and support for a guy put in (as it was explained to us) "an impossible position". You can imagine our reaction and cultural incomprehension, given that we were Yankees amd washing dishes to make ends meet.

My remarks were an expression of my reaction to his manner -- the kind I saw on the hothouse flowers from Belle Meade and Mountain Brook whose dishes I washed. If that's a problem for you. then so be it.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/30/2004

Richard --
His son died in a car accident. If you don't "buy" the "son of a mill worker thing", you'd better damned well acknowledge the "death of a son" thing. If this merely "reminds you" . . . "of people you went to school with", well, you are not exactly the kind of person with whom I need to spend time.
And, if those are the "schools you went to," (ie -- sharing schools with the Kerry- Edwards types) as a guy from public schools, I have to say that you have been a bloviating jackass about your actual background, which is apparently quite priviledged. My (public school ) friends would have loved to have met your friends behind the school. That's all I'm saying. Especially if you are saying things like, " he reminds me . . .of a number of people i went to school with' -- again -- since I am assuming you did not graduate lately, and since his son actually died, are your lives really comparable, other than the carbon based life form thing?
dc


Richard Henry Morgan - 7/30/2004

Edwards biography is a matter of record. He reminds me, in manner, of any number of people I went to school with and as you can tell, the reaction is atavistic. If you thought I was describing his biography, then you credit me even less than I imagined.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/30/2004

We didn't have any sons of millworkers when I was at Duke, Richard. What lying cheap-shot will you not take?


Richard Henry Morgan - 7/30/2004

Well, I will grant you that Clinton will always have a "remarkable" personal story to tell. What exactly are Edwards' and Kerry's remarkable personal stories? I went to a school, like Duke or Davidson, where the ground was littered with Edwards lookalikes -- the soft little boys with well-coiffed hair, the backbone of a chocolate eclair, the perfect country club manner, and who hadn't done any heavy lifting in generations. If you've been in the South long, Ralph, you know the type -- "what did your grandaddy do?" I think Derek is right on that. Stories may prove memorable to some, but did Dole's getting shot up at Monte Cassino make him the better person for the job?

As for the Repubs, they are mostly, like Kerry, from the family of privilege. The only one there (save McCain or Giuliani, as you say) with an interesting story is Rice -- and she doesn't strike me as the type for a filmed-through-cheesecloth-Harry-Thomasson-Bahbwah-Wahwah-sob-sister moment.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/30/2004

Funny though. I don't recall all of these conservatives who are complaining about biography making these points when Bob Dole's military past was plastered all over the place and subtly counterpoised with Clinton's absence from Vietnam. Oh, but the difference was . . . what was the difference exactly? (Jonathan, this is not aimed at you, and really not at Richard also. It is just another example of the hypocrisy inherent in the system -- apparently biography matters if it is My guy, but not if it is Yours.)
dc


Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2004

One consideration here is that those who will have left the strongest impressions on this convention, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and John Kerry most importantly, have remarkable personal stories to tell. I don't think that anything like that can be said of the major figures who will get the spotlight at the Republican convention, except for John McCain and, perhaps, Mayor Giuliani.


Richard Henry Morgan - 7/29/2004

I probably scare Jon when I agree with him -- but in this case I'm agreeing with him on general principle, not having seen the speech, or any of the speeches in total. I did have the misfortune of catching the last few minutes of the Al Sharpton Show, as dinner was being put on, and was amused to watch the crowd at MSNBC show their disgust.

The thing about tenure reminds me of my days studying economics. There was a guy at Harvard named Dusenberry (or somesuch), who was granted tenure early and RIPed (retired in place). What have you done lately, John? I know what Bush has done, and done poorly. What have you done well? I smell a truly lackluster campaign coming on -- a campaign between a mediocrity and an empty cipher. Heaven help us.


Richard Henry Morgan - 7/29/2004

I probably scare Jon when I agree with him -- but in this case I'm agreeing with him on general principle, not having seen the speech, or any of the speeches in total. I did have the misfortune of catching the last few minutes of the Al Sharpton Show, as dinner was being put on, and was amused to watch the crowd at MSNBC show their disgust.

The thing about tenure reminds me of my days studying economics. There was a guy at Harvard named Dusenberry (or somesuch), who was granted tenure early and RIPed (retired in place). What have you done lately, John? I know what Bush has done, and done poorly. What have you done well? I smell a truly lackluster campaign coming on -- a campaign between a mediocrity and an empty cipher. Heaven help us.

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