Simon Schama: The victory of big ideas over small minds

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Simon Schama is author of The American Future: A History.]

The night before John McCain announced that Sarah Palin was his choice for vice-president, Barack Obama said, in his acceptance speech at Denver, that people with nothing better to run on could always “make a big election about small things”. “It's worked before,” he added ruefully – and accurately.

What Obama meant by “small things” was the politics of personality and character assassination that he believes have cheapened the democratic process. His high-minded view is that no matter how dire the crisis, the masters of the low road turn what should be a debate over the national future into what they cynically assume most Americans want: a likeability contest. Instead of grappling with the responsibilities and limits of American military power, or the fate of the free market, Small Politics specialises in imagined affinity: the creation of a public persona with whom Regular Folk can identify. Headache-inducing homework gets replaced by feelgood instinct; People magazine becomes the campaign journal of record, rather than The Washington Post. Goodbye Cheney; hiya Hockey Mom.

When shrewdly calculated, as it certainly was with Sarah Palin, playing on our affinity with our leaders serves to domesticate their power. In any democracy, leadership is a negotiation between familiarity and authority. Voters crave the illusion that a president or prime minister is one of them and understands their daily trials; the production of soap-operatics, pregnancies, family dramas and romances satisfies that need. But they also want a sense that the leader is unlike the run-of-the-mill windbag in the pub; someone of swift, hard, quiet effectiveness; someone exceptional who, when the need arises, is deaf to the clamour of the crowd.

The present crisis has only magnified the conflict between these competing demands. Since Main Street has its doubts (to put it mildly) about the $700 billion bail-out of Wall Street, the candidates must be seen as attentive to the anger. But apparently, they also feel they have to demonstrate executive leadership before either of them is anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Someone might like to take them aside and tell them that, actually, the United States already has a president – albeit one who seems to think, astonishingly, that it’s a good idea to collude in their grandstanding. There is nothing the two senators can do to right the market, other than be good senators. But John McCain in particular seems to confuse posturing with action, rather like a brigadier shouting at his troops amid the din of fire. He evidently thinks that the American people will believe the worthiness of debate is a sign of weak government. He has it exactly wrong. Explaining to the American people what has gone amiss and, much more importantly, what can be done to repair the disaster is precisely what the candidates should be doing.

The real challenge facing McCain and Obama, Palin and Joe Biden as they prepare for the crucial television debates which, until McCain’s threatened withdrawal, were due to start tonight in Oxford, Mississippi, remains the same as before the crisis: how to be both accessible and authoritative.

Of the four of them, it’s Obama who faces the trickiest test. For television, his body language is all wrong – he has the look of someone who never suffers fools gladly. Occasionally, the camera catches him literally with his nose in the air; eyes half-closed in pained disbelief, as though he’s shown up for Plato’s Symposium and instead found himself trapped in Big Brother.

Condescension is political as well as media death. Doubtless he knows this; but worse than coming across as the professor he was at Chicago Law School, stuck with a particularly dim bunch of students, would be to graft on a veneer of phoney down-home ingratiation. Anyone who has seen Obama in less scripted moments, or who has read Dreams From My Father, a book so beautifully written you can scarcely credit that it is by a politician, knows that he has all it takes for popular appeal.

But like Gordon Brown, Obama thinks that the meltdown of world finance is no moment for idle talk of moose hunting. Among the changes he wants is an alteration to the character of election campaigns themselves, replacing dross with substance, bringing the debates back to what he imagines the Founding Fathers had in mind: a contest over America’s governance.

It’s all very worthy, but not without traces of disingenuousness or even sour grapes. The only clangingly fake moment in Obama's otherwise powerful and moving acceptance of the Democratic nomination was the claim that his candidacy was “not about me; it’s about you”. Yeah, right. Obama knows very well that an African-American embodying an appeal to national unity is, to put it mildly, a revolutionary event, and that the projection of his own charisma has been the story since his barn-burner of a speech at the Boston Democratic Convention four years ago.

And for all his wish to make the election a dignified argument, Obama also knows that John Kerry’s philosophical loftiness, his refusal to get down and dirty with the Swift Boaters traducing his military record, cost him the election. Obama has responded more aggressively to the same character assassin, the slime-specialist writer Jerome Corsi, who is feeding the popular myth that Obama is (at least at heart) a Muslim, and that his election would be tantamount to planting a fifth column in the White House.

But Obama recognises that when elections stay Small, the Republicans – the masters of take-down gossip, the fine-tuners of likeability – almost always win. Which is why Joe Biden might actually turn out to be just as inspired a choice as Sarah Palin for vice-presidential candidate. Like Palin, Biden is no pussycat; he too talks to Regular Folk in a way that immediately tells them he knows all about their world. Biden is the scrapper from Scranton, Pennsylvania; the kid cruelly nicknamed “Dash” at high school because of a crippling stammer, who somehow (an American story, this) turned himself into the man in the saloon bar who just happens to know more about Albania or Burma or Kazakhstan than you ever thought possible.

In a normal year, the conventional wisdom that vice-presidential choices and debates make no difference would hold good. But this time, there is no one in the United States not conscious of the vulnerability, for different reasons, of the men at the top of the tickets. So the “readiness for the White House” question, not to mention the sense that for the past eight years America has actually been governed by the Cheney administration plus front man, means that the audience for the VP debate will be at least as big as for the main event.

The great quandary in this tussle between Big and Small Politics turns out, in the end, to be John McCain’s – and it is largely of his own making. For as long as he has been running for high office, McCain has cast himself as the “maverick” Republican, willing to defy the party line for the sake of principle. To the disgust of the hardliners who dominated his party, McCain was willing to reach across the aisle on immigration and campaign finance reform – and not just to Democrats but to the most liberal among their ranks, such as Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and, horror of horrors, Ted Kennedy.

McCain was even prepared to denounce extreme Evangelicals, of the kind that nursed Sarah Palin’s faith, as “agents of intolerance”. He paid for this temerity by losing badly to George W Bush in the South Carolina primary in the 2000 race for the Republican nomination and his candidacy never recovered.

So this year, once the nomination was sewn up, McCain made a Faustian pact. He knew that he had inherited the all-powerful take-down machine, created by Ronald Reagan’s communications genius Roger Ailes (later the chief of Fox News) and perfected by Lee Atwater, who won the 1988 election for Bush Sr by demonising Michael Dukakis as soft on criminal psychopaths. Atwater begat Karl Rove, who begat Steve Schmidt, now McCain’s campaign strategist and almost certainly the genius who came up with Palin, betting that Small Politics would always beat High Debate. So McCain signed on for attack commercials that depicted Obama as some sort of crazed, America-hating pacifist-Leftist who evidently would not put “Country First”.

And then, in the shape of the Wall Street hurricane, history happened. Whoops. Overnight, the pit bull in lipstick no longer seemed just the ticket. Obama’s poll ratings in battleground states climbed and McCain, thrashing around for yet another identity, began to sound like a combination of Lenin and the populist William Jennings Bryan, railing against the greed of the plutocracy. Still more weirdly, the man who had spent his life denouncing regulation and central government intervention now became its most impassioned champion, summoning his inner Teddy Roosevelt and casting himself as the rod across the backs of the rich and irresponsible. This, as bar-room philosophers like to say, doesn’t pass the smell test...

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