Biography and Ambition

Tomorrow is the Illinois primary, and no one here seems to care. On the one hand, this indifference isn’t surprising. Illinois hasn’t played a significant role in a national election since 1960, and there are no statewide offices up for grabs this year. On the other hand, the state should be getting more attention this year from national politicians this year, because the two Democratic nominees both spent significant portions of their lives here. And yet, the weekend before the primary and only Mitt Romney, of all people, has bothered to pay a visit to Illinois.  We didn’t even get an Obama Super Bowl ad this year.

I guess Barack Obama had other, more pressing needs elsewhere. He’s ahead in Illinois by something like 40 percentage points, even though Hillary Clinton was born and raised in Park Ridge, which is very near where I live. The gap in the polls can be explained any number of ways, but I can’t help but think Clinton’s poor showing in the state of her birth is a bad sign for her prospects in the rest of the election. Clinton seems to have immediately entered Wellesley College shortly after birth. It was there that her personality and ambitions were formed. At least, this is how her campaign biography portrays her. Obama’s childhood, by contrast, has been well documented, and there’s a narrative arc from his unusual upbringing to the message of hope and change that are the centerpieces of his presidential campaign.  The differences between Clinton’s and Obama’s biographies account for the ways their ambitions are perceived, and why Clinton is seen as coldly calculating but realistic, while Obama seems genuine but vulnerable–a reversal of the usual gender roles, as several people have already pointed out.

Because her Park Ridge years contribute so little to who she is, Clinton’s ambitions seem to have come from nowhere. They have no grounding in childhood innocence, like they did with her husband. We’re all familiar with George W. Bush’s oedipal issues and John Edwards’ poor boy origins. Whatever one may think of Bush and Edwards, at least we understand what drives them. Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions seem both an act of adult will and oddly opaque.  Mitt Romney has a similar burning desire from nowhere biography–and similar problems convincing people he understands their troubles. Similarly, Dick Cheney’s conniving lust for power is a late manifestation and, as a result, seems positively cancerous.  John McCain is a special case: wartime experience is a kind of second birth, so he seems genuine in ways that even Mike Huckabee can’t match.

Much has been made of Hilary Clinton’s carpetbagger Senate runs in New York, but if New Yorkers don’t care, neither should we. And she can be likable when she wants to be. In fact, Clinton appears most likable when she’s sharing a stage with Obama, as last week’s chortle-fest debate demonstrated. But her ambitions are too naked, too contrived. Obama is a supremely confident man. He can also be a jerk, as we saw in his testy response when Hillary Clinton was asked in a recent debate about her likability, and Obama churlishly commented, "You’re likable enough, Hillary."  And I’m not too sure about the recent tendency to graft Obama’s life story onto John F. Kennedy’s.  Obama is supposed to be the candidate that will take us out of the ideological battles of the 1960s, but Obama’s invocation of hope recalls not just the optimism offered by John F. Kennedy, but also the brutal dashing of those hopes later on in the decade.  There’s something disheartening about imagining hope using a 47-year-old ideal. Finally, John F. Kennedy isn’t the only specter in Obama’s candidacy invokes, for there’s another famous Illinois politician whose life story serves as a cautionary tale.  I hope that Obama turns out to be John F. Kennedy and not Adlai Stevenson.

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