Friday, August 1


It took a British paper, the Times, to bring up a topic that has been studiously avoided in the American media: the interesting parallel between Obama and McCain, namely their fathers.

We're not sure what political can be drawn from this. Bill Clinton, for example, had neither a good father nor a good step father. His stepfather was a gun-brandishing alcoholic who lost his Buick franchise through mismanagement and his own pilfering. He physically abused his family, including the young Bill. His mother was a heavy gambler with mob ties. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond -- to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support - was a colorful car dealer, and mob connected gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house is firebombed) on the fault line of criminality.

On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln survived rather well, although not without pain, a strained relationship with his father.

Ben Macintyre, Times UK - At one level, the presidential race is a battle between sharply contrasting personalities; at another, it is a race involving the two fathers - both long-dead, both missing for much of their sons' childhoods - who shaped them.

The fathers might have come from different planets. John S. McCain Sr was a four-star admiral, the hard-bitten scion of a warrior clan; Barack Obama Sr was a Kenyan goatherd from the Luo tribe, a wandering soul who tried, and failed, to make his mark in post-colonial Africa. Yet both fathers are defining figures in their sons' lives, paternal templates against which they measure themselves.

Obama describes Barack Hussein Obama Sr as “the father I had never truly known”: a charming, intelligent, feckless figure who came to Hawaii from Kenya on a scholarship, married Obama's mother and produced the future presidential candidate, then vanished back to Africa soon afterwards.

For years, brought up by a single mother and her parents, the young Obama could only imagine his father through legend, stories told and retold. “My father was missing,” he writes. “And nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact.” The father became a fantasy figure: “The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself.” The two Baracks met again only once: a brief, strained reunion when Obama was 10. A decade later, an aunt called from Kenya to say that Obama Sr had died in car accident: “I felt no pain, only the vague sense of an opportunity lost.”. . .

Cut to the same point in John McCain's life story and - although his start in life and family circumstances could hardly have been more different - one finds a comparable character, another quest for identity. Hell-raiser, drinker, a fighter with a short attention span and a shorter temper, the young McCain seemed, by his own account, to be heading for a life of meaningless self-indulgence. “I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties, and generally misused my good health and youth.” Martial valour is the central motif of McCain's memoir. His father, a wartime submarine commander, would rise to the very summit of the US Navy; his grandfather had been a hellfire four-star admiral. The warrior clan traced its lineage back to “the distinguished conqueror” Charlemagne. “For two centuries,” he writes, “the men of my family were raised to go to war”.

Like Obama, McCain's self-definition revolves around his father, the inscrutable patriarch, gruff, hard-drinking, idolised, and seldom present. McCain writes that, in naval families, “you are taught to consider their absence not as a deprivation, but as an honour,". . .

At the end of Obama's book, one likes his absent father more; McCain's memoir leaves one admiring his father a little less, in spite of the son's protestations. There is something inhuman about the insistent drum-beat of sacrifice, courage and duty. When Admiral McCain first hears of his son's capture, he goes on to a formal dinner and does not mention the fact to anyone; he replies to letters of condolence with a clipped formula; he orders the B52s to bomb Hanoi, knowing his son is imprisoned there. “Few close observers of my father ever detected that my captivity caused him great suffering. He never let his concern affect his attention to duty or restrain him from prosecuting the war to the greatest extent,” McCain writes. This may be the mark of an effective military commander, but a willingness to bomb your own son is not the mark of a great dad. In McCain's world, it seems, duty trumps feeling.

Barack Obama's father, by contrast, emerges as an attractively flawed human, generous to the end with money he did not have, clinging to a frayed dignity. This is a man whom a son could have loved, had he only been there, or able to “outlive a mocking fate”.


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