In every era the United States has chosen a leader that represented some key aspect of the national psyche, or else the nation has stumbled until one could be found. In 2008, we have already tried on three -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin -- in the political dressing room. Although I see the excitement about the third fading as beachwear after Labor Day, I'd like to stop and dwell about what these choices say about our favorite topic -- ourselves.
Palin, the candidate we now know as the hypocrite who ... is really an apt reflection of the inherent contradictions Americans collectively embrace.
We want a green planet, but we also want our very many, often enough hugely unnecessary cars. We claim equality but, deep down, we're all a little racist (or even a lot, as Palin's cover for white women who can't abide a black man amply shows). We want to think of ourselves as law-abiding and church-going, but we cheat on our taxes, jaywalk, commit adultery and ultimately want everyone else to be barred from doing certain things, so long as we can secretly sneak in a poach after hunting season is over.
Hillary Clinton, the Clinton I would have voted for in 1992 had I been given the chance, represents the spirit of generosity that we Americans are so capable of individually and yet so pigheadedly averse to as a society. The contradiction kills us, undoes us, paralyzes us and keeps our society looking like an industrial museum piece from the 1940s.
Clinton dropped the ball on her own presidential campaign, just as she did on health care reform in 1994. My gut sense is that she thought having her heart in the right place and the genius to conceive of grand ideas was enough to make it happen -- just as the American Dream is for the majority of us.
This leaves us Barack Obama.
In the 1950s, the United States was in the middle of a baby boom and predictably chose a president who looked like the Gerber logo's baby, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike was likable and he had been the referee-commander of a global military coalition by virtue of that quality, rather than because of military genius.
Next decade we tried John F. Kennedy, who looked the very picture of health, youth and American altruism, but we now know he was physically very ill, aging all-too-rapidly and capable of breathtaking selfishness.
There has been a lot of myth and falsehood, but there were also some home truths in those experiences.
Obama cannot possibly be the Olympian figure captured delivering a photogenic Berlin speech even before the formality of an election. He will surely disappoint those who think so. But we don't need to have a crush on Obama.
In this most serious season in the history of U.S. political economy, we just need to decide just what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to rise to the challenges or satisfy our complacencies?