Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Role of Presidential Patrimony

Atop his debate notes, Mitt Romney writes “Father.” Before he became president, Barack Obama wrote a best-seller “Dreams from My Father.”

One week A.D. (After Debate, After Debacle, take your choice), it’s tempting to see the cataclysm in primal terms, the patrimony of the two men—-one escaping the shadow of a famous father, the other haunted by a father he barely knew.

For those who normally disdain pop psychologizing, including me, this walk on eggshells can be justified only by a wrecked political landscape that has so many wandering about like the last survivor in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” mumbling “Madness, madness.”

Romney tells Wolf Blitzer his father’s name is meant to inspire him in political combat, but another interpretation is possible: a reminder that in 1968 George Romney had the presidency in his grasp but failed to keep it. Does the son’s ruthless self-reinvention owe as much to the memory of a father’s failure as his accomplishments?

Obama’s self-immolation recalls years of doubt, even from admirers, over his distaste for confrontation. As far back as 2007, Maureen Dowd was pushing him, “I know you want to run a high-minded campaign, but do you worry you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little.” He assured her he would when it counted.

Yet, in the 2009 debt-limit struggle with Congress, he didn’t. Now again with everything on the line he has blinked.

Why? Does Barack Obama instinctively fear, above all else, appearing to be the angry black man his absent father was? Can he ever overcome the cool self-image that protects him from that?

A painful childhood memory of my own re-surfaces. I was six at a Fourth of July parade when the colors came by and my father’s hat went flying from his head, knocked off by the beefy hand of a red-faced man behind us pointing at the flag. Shame and rage rose in me, but my father only smiled sweetly, nodded and bent to pick up his hat.

Years later I read that, as a child, Sigmund Freud was told by his father that a Gentile had grabbed his new fur cap and flung it into the mud, shouting, “Jew, get off the street.” Freud recalled angrily asking, “What did you do?” His father answered calmly, “I stepped into the gutter and picked up my cap.” In dreams, Freud would later note, a hat may stand for male genitals.

In all this, let a gifted writer have the last word. In an award-winning memoir of his own father’s last days, Philip Roth ends “Patrimony” with the searing realization that “at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting in judgment of whatever I do.”

For the sake of us all, in these closing days, Barack Obama must overcome that paternal legacy as well as Mitt Romney seems to be dodging his own.

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