Saturday, August 16, 2008

A President From Nowhere

After Barack Obama or John McCain leaves the White House, where will future generations go to tour the boyhood home that shaped a president? Hawaii? Indonesia? The Panama Canal Zone?

For a long time, I lived near Hyde Park, where FDR was born and spent his years before moving into the White House. "All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River," he said as he was making history, and American generations can still visit, see and touch the reality that formed him and told him who he was and could be.

For the candidates in this election there is, as Gertrude Stein said, no there there. "Obama and McCain," Peggy Noonan writes, "are not from a place, but from an experience" and the "lack of placeness with both candidates contributes to a sense of their disjointedness, their floatingness."

This 21st century identity gap started with George W. Bush, who was born in Connecticut, grew up in Texas and spent most of his life before politics trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged. No matter how often we see him cutting brush, our sense of who he is and where he came from remains hazy.

For Obama, lack of a geographical label may even be an advantage, George Packer claims in the New Yorker, asserting that "a black man who, unlike Obama, is deeply rooted in America is probably unelectable today. His rootedness would be inseparable from his blackness, an identity that has to recede far into the background for a black candidate to have a chance."

And yet, anxiety about both candidates today may have much to do with the voters' sense that, as Noonan says, one of them is "from Young. He's from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He's from TV" and the other "from Military. He's from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state."

In the past century, Warren G. Harding campaigned from the front porch of his Victorian house in Marion, Ohio, which is still there for anyone who pays $6 to look at and wander through as is the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Illinois, complete with a bowl of the popcorn he liked to munch before he went to California and invented himself first as an actor and then as a politician.

Our next president's defining home will not be geographical but a set of images on the Internet from all over the world, and we can only hope that that lack of a specific locale won't keep him from being grounded in reality.

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