As Andrew Hammel from the University of Düsseldorf pointed out in his interview with Jörg Wolf recently, most Germans "haven't the faintest idea what John McCain stands for" politically. If you thought you could find out by reading his autobiography, think again. "Faith of My Fathers" could just as well be placed on the bookshelf labeled "military history".
In his so-called "family memoir", John McCain describes in detail wartime adventures of his father and his grandfather. Both were named like himself: John Sidney McCain, and both were four-star admirals in the Navy. John McCain the third (72) succeeded them to military academy and became a bomber pilot. After childhood and youth full of fits of rage and fistfights followed the stereotypical life of a soldier, including fights, romantic escapades, alcohol and gambling.
A notorious maverick from a 200-year-old military dynasty
After his training, John McCain wanted eagerly to go to Vietnam. "More than professional considerations lay beneath my desire to go to war. Nearly all the men in my family had made their reputations at war. It was my family's pride." Bombing Hanoi, John McCain was shot down in 1967 and became a prisoner of war for four an a half years. He declined an early release as an admiral's son because that would have violated the Code of Conduct. Towards the end of his book, he sums up the lesson he's drawn from his time as a prisoner of war, definitely the most important experience in his life: "Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return. [...] This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. It was the faith I had unknowingly embraced at the Naval Academy. It was my father's and grandfather's faith."
That's pretty much all the Republican candidate reveals about himself in his book. But it might suffice in order to judge his personality by. John McCain painstakenly presents himself as a notoriously unpredictable maverick on the one hand, and as fiercely patriotic, on the other. Both themes have played a role throughout his 2008 campaign.
During the 21 years that McCain has been representing the State of Arizona as a Senator in Washington, he's gained himself a reputation as a hothead, but also as an independent thinker. Often, he has been at odds with his own party, and many conservative Republicans consider him to be too liberal. But the financial crisis has put Barack Obama well ahead of John McCain in the polls.
The financial crisis has turned the tide in favor of Barack Obama
McCain, who has often admitted not to know that much about economics, seemed to have missed the debacle of the century. While he was hastily trying to make up for his lapse, the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama (42), stood by watching and looking level-headed and presidential. To make things worse for McCain, his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin (44) turned out to be a disaster. While at first, the ultra-conservative mother of five seemed to win over the hearts of the right wing of the Republican party, her incompetent sounding statements cost McCain precious credibility points. With a vice presidential candidate on his side who's more of a burden than a partner, John McCain grasped the last remaining straw and promised tax cuts. But it's unclear whether the well-tried Republican panacea will help him win the election. The deadweight of both the economic crisis and the war in Iraq has unsettled all Americans. The sooner they can put the era of Bush behind, the better. It seems that Barack Obama has the answers that John McCain doesn't.
Obama reminds his readers of the American Dream
In his second book, "The Audacity of Hope", Barack Obama develops plans to solve the pressing problems of the country, e.g. its crumbling health care system. He talks straight and honest sounding about politics, the constitution, family, faith, race and the "world beyond our borders". Displaying the same elegance that distinguishes him as a speaker, the author commemorates the American "melting pot", which he represents, the constitutions and the Founding Fathers' ideals, the New Deal that helped lead the US out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the great presidents ranging from Lincoln to Roosevelt. In contrast to the polarizing kind of policies that has marked Republican leadership since Reagan, putting dividing side topics like abortion, gun control, evolution and gay marriage in the center of public debate, Obama claims that there's less that divides the nation than what unites it. Most of the people he met "thought that anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage. They figured that people shouldn't have to file for bankruptcy because they got sick. They believed that every child should have a genuinely good education and that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren't rich. They wanted to be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air, clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect." This might not sound like much. But once the myth of the divided nation is unmasked as untrue, people might start asking for real solutions for problems that really matter.
For real change in American policies
With America's reputation abroad ruined and the economy in turmoil, the psychological strain is high. In order to keep the US safe and competitive, investments in infrastructure, education, science and technology as well as energy independence are necessary. Obama calls for good policies instead of ideologies: "In other words, we should be guided by what works. [... Bill] Clinton's Third Way went beyond splitting the difference. It tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of the Americans."
Obamas positions sound at times standard Democratic, at times standard Republican. He is decidedly pro-choice, but concedes that pro-life Christians hold honest and deeply-felt motives for their fight against abortion. He is skeptical about the death penalty, but thinks it appropriate in cases of especially "heinous" crimes like mass murder and the rape and the murder of a child. His a devout Christian yet frankly admits that his mother used to consider religion more of an anthropological phenomenon. He wants to spend more on public education, but only in exchange for more accountability for parents and teachers. He grants that some welfare programs "sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self-respect," but also that a job in itself doesn't guarantee you can rise out of poverty. Most people aren't as different from each other as Washington likes to portray them, Obama maintains. "Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 percent Democrat and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people's personal attributes." Nobody has won an election with such concilliable statements in a long time. The fact that Obama could only proves how strongly Americans wish for different politics than what they've seen for the last eight years. Just how different these could turn out to be is literally visible on Obamas face.
A black man of mixed heritage
Barack Obama, son to a white mother from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, was born in the youngest and most exotic state of the union: Hawaii. He calls himself "a black man of mixed heritage". When he was two years old, his parents divorced. He therefore hardly knew his father. When he was five, his mother remarried and took her son with her to Indonesia to live with his Indonesian stepfather – another experience which sets Obama apart from many of his fellow citizens who don't even own a passport. After five years living abroad, "Barry" returned to Hawaii, where he was raised mainly by his white grandparents. They adhered two traditional Midwestern values: honesty, hard work, and a fair chance for all. Obama experienced his adolescence as "trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant."
Even though his family wasn't well-off, they provided him a private school education. He won a scholarship with Columbia University and moved to New York. After graduation, he went to work as a community organizer in Chicago's South Side for three years. This time of his life and his origins both made an impact on the man who could become the first African-American to be elected president of the United States. In the first part of his autobiography, "Dreams from My Father", which he wrote after having completed Harvard Law School, Obama recounts in his own words his experiences and reflections on being black in America.
Concerning content as well as style, Barack Obamas couldn't be more different from John McCain's. McCain bores the reader with wartime stories and theatrical patriotism, while Obama shows rhetoric brilliance. The story of his life is less mainstream and more interesting than McCain's, and he reveals more personal thoughts and emotions. His first book, "Dreams from My Father", was published years before his political career started. The fact that he kept true to the same honesty and depth of thought in his second book, "The Audacity of Hope", was rewarded by hundreds of thousands of readers. It was published in 2006, two years after Obama had over night entered the stage of national politics with his celebrated speech at the Democratic party convention.
Barack has become a symbol for America's hope, America's dream: "A common dream, born of two continents. My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed", believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential." Compared to this vision, John McCain's promises for tax cuts at home and victory in Iraq can hardly score. But, as a Republican pundit put it recently: "McCain can't win, but Obama can still loose." By next Tuesday we'll find out just how hard the "Bradley-effect' will hit.
This article written by Atlantic Review blogger Sonja Bonin was first published (in German) in Migros Magazin, Switzerland.