Obama and McCain Not ‘From’ Anywhere

Peggy Noonan laments “The End of Placeness.”

OK, quick, close your eyes. Where is Barack Obama from?

He’s from Young. He’s from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He’s from TV.

John McCain? He’s from Military. He’s from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state.

Chicago? That’s where Mr. Obama wound up. Modern but Midwestern: a perfect place to begin what might become a national career. Arizona? That’s where Mr. McCain settled, a perfect place from which to launch a more or less conservative career in the 1980s.

Neither man has or gives a strong sense of place in the sense that American politicians almost always have, since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, and Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and FDR of New York, and JFK of Massachusetts. Even Bill Clinton was from a town called Hope, in Arkansas, even if Hope was really Hot Springs. And in spite of his New England pedigree, George W. Bush was a Texan, as was, vividly, LBJ.

My word but this is silly.

First, as FDL’s Blue Texan notes, Noonan’s romanticism of the “placeness” of presidents of old is mistaken.   Lincoln wasn’t “from” Illinois, he just wound up there.  And Noonan’s old boss, the sainted Ronald Reagan, moved all over the place before winding up in California.

Second, and more importantly, it’s far from clear that “placeness” is a virtue for an aspirant to the presidency of the United States.   One could reasonably argue that having lived one’s whole life in the same town is a plus for someone who’s running for mayor, school board, or even the House of Representatives.   For those jobs, an intuitive understanding of the needs of the local community is immensely helpful.

But president?  He’s chief executive of a continental superpower comprised of fifty quasi-sovereign states populated by the most diverse citizenry in the history of the planet.  Provincialism is decidedly not an advantage for such a position.

That’s not to say one can’t have grown up in the same town and still have linguistic and cultural and nonetheless achieve a cosmopolitan outlook through some combination of education and experience.  Certainly, Bill Clinton achieved that despite having lived most of his pre-presidential life in Arkansas.  He went to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale and broadened his experience the hard way.  But, surely, it’s easier to see the big picture if you’ve been out and about, as both Obama and McCain decidedly have.

FDL commenter Michael Scott points me to a line from McCain’s first congressional campaign that I’d somehow never seen even though it has been widely recounted.

McCain still had a political Achilles’ heel. As a recent Valley transplant, he looked like a carpetbagger, and critics instantly seized the issue.

How McCain finally squelched the charge has become part of Arizona political lore.

At a 1982 candidates forum, McCain “snapped,” to use his own word, after somebody brought up his residency “for the thousandth time.”

Here is what he said:

“Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

The late Phoenix Gazette political columnist John Kolbe is quoted in [Robert] Timberg’s book [John McCain: An American Odyssey] as calling McCain’s brusque answer “the most devastating response to a potentially troublesome political issue I’ve ever heard.”

It doesn’t have the charm of “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan’s famous answer to a question about his age in his 1984 re-election bid against Walter Mondale, but it’ll do nicely as the last word on this subject.

Image: You Decide 2008

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    A lot of Americans if not most lack a sense of placeness these days. I grew up in St. Louis; I’ve spent much of my adult life in Chicago seasoned with a sojourn in Germany and so many business stays in Boston I might as well have been living there.

    Woodrow Wilson lived in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and New Jersey before being elected president.

    Did Franklin Roosevelt have a sense of “placeness”. He was born in New York but he spent much of his early life in school in Massachusetts.

    Is it possible that what Ms. Noonan misses are regional accents? Regional accents have been disappearing in this country ever since the radio industry standardized on a Midwestern dialect for announcers and the practice was later adopted by television. It was abetted by improved transportation until now the regional dialects evinced by Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush (boarding school dialect), Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush are pale reminders of what they once were.

  2. Derrick says:

    I’m glad that again we show how reluctant (sigh!) McCain is to talk about his POW experience.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Derrick: A little reading comprehension problem?

    That quote is from 1982, when he was first running for the Senate.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I think Noonan has a point. Add Romney from Utah, Michigan, Massachusetts and Hillary Clinton from Arkansas, Illinois and New York, you have a new brand of candidates. The more traditional approach was to identify a candidate from a state and then balance the ticket from another region. There have been very few succesful Presidencies in which the President and VP were from the same region. Clinton/Gore may be it. Obama with an Indiana running mate doesn’t seem odd because Obama is not seen as a regional candidate. In fact the Midwest may be particularly difficult for him.

    BTW/ Lincoln spent his entire adult life in Illinois (ending up in frontier villages and towns occupied by newcomers).

  5. Beldar says:

    The aptness of the McCain quote from 1982 also struck me when I first read Noonan’s column on Saturday.

    Saturday evening, I finished an overlong essay of my own entitled McCain versus Obama: “placelessness,” faith, and dreams, in which I argue that Noonan was right about Obama, and mostly wrong about McCain. The bold-faced points from my argument are:

    Barack Obama’s young life, and the people around him then, were filled with unconnected randomness. John McCain’s young life, and the people around him then, were filled with deeply shared purpose.

    Even if one concludes that they share a certain superficial degree of geographic “placelessness,” the candidates’ respective book titles thus point out a trite but fundamentally true comparison: McCain got a rock-solid and abiding “faith” from his grandfather and father — faith in them, in himself, in the U.S. Navy and the other U.S. military forces, and most importantly, in all of America — while at best, Obama got only “dreams” from his.

    McCain is rooted to the entire United States — and in exactly the same way that he and his father and grandfather weren’t fighting as U.S. Navy officers for Ohio or Texas or Nebraska, but for all of America.

  6. Beldar says:

    Oh — and the Obama campaign emphatically does not think this is all silly. There’s a good reason why his first general election TV commercial was carefully crafted to imply, falsely, that he was raised in Kansas.

    In fact, in his autobiography, Kansas is mentioned as the place his maternal grandparents twice fled, along with “a series of small towns in Texas,” Los Angeles, and Seattle, before they finally landed in Hawaii. If there are actually any Kansas-specific values that his grandparents or mother taught him, they certainly aren’t mentioned as such in his book. He never lived in Kansas. And the major metropolitan areas in which he’s actually lived as an adult are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. — none of them quite as “heartland”-associated as the good brown dust of Kansas that he never actually breathed while growing up.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Barack Obama’s young life, and the people around him then, were filled with unconnected randomness.

    Perhaps. Yet it seems a safe bet that Obama accomplishes more between his first 2 cups of coffee than Beldar does in 6 months…

    And if one accepts this premise, it makes Obama’s accomplishments as an adult even more impressive. McCain was born with access to the highest levels of our society. Obama pulled himself up by his bootstraps.

  8. Beldar says:

    anjin-san, you know nothing about me or my accomplishments, and they’re certainly not the point of my post. If they were relevant, I’d gladly put what I’ve done with my law degree up against what Obama has done with his, but you neither actually know or care about that. You’re a rude and nasty person, quick to make personal attacks that you think are clever. I will work harder on ignoring you outright in the future.

    As for Obama pulling himself up by his bootstraps, my essay (which you obviously didn’t read) concedes repeatedly that Obama is an impressive self-promoter, and that no one can doubt that the advancement of Barack Obama is among his core values. The problem is the lack of evidence for any other core values that any of us recognize as being commonly shared with most Americans.

  9. anjin-san says:

    You’re a rude and nasty person,

    You seem perfectly happy to attack Obama for not having the good fortune to have an Admiral for a father. Perhaps you occupy something of a glass house.

    Obama is an impressive self-promoter

    Yes. God forbid a black man should have ambition. Exactly how many president have not been self-promoters?

  10. anjin-san says:

    McCain got a rock-solid and abiding “faith” from his grandfather and father — faith in them, in himself, in the U.S. Navy and the other U.S. military forces,

    Unfortunately, McCain’s faith in the US military appears to have led him to the conclusion that military force should be an early, not a last option.

    Also interesting to note that faith in God is not mentioned, while faith in himself is…

  11. anjin-san says:

    The problem is the lack of evidence for any other core values that any of us recognize as being commonly shared with most Americans

    This is patent nonsense. Obama has displayed any number of core American values in his own life. Education, hard work, devotion to family. Community service, recognizing opportunities and taking advantage of them. Public service in the political arena. Advancing himself and his family economically (a self-made millionaire, he did not marry his money).

    It is ungracious of you not to acknowledge the fact that Obama has obviously lived core American values and practiced them in his own life across a wide spectrum. If you are going to lecture others on manners, perhaps you should polish your own a bit.

    As for “self-promotion”, have you called McCain to task for his almost constant references to his experiences as a POW? My uncle fought at Chosin Reservoir, and I have heard him refer to it exactly once in 50 year. All politic ans are self-promoters, as are most people with successful careers.