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.
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