The story is key in U.S. politics

The personal narrative of candidates trumps policy in this election

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Never mind style over substance, the U.S. presidential campaign has become a matter of story over style. It's not even a question of personality trumping policy. It's all about the candidates' personal narratives, their stories.

Thus, when John McCain named Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate on the Republican ticket last Friday, Democratic candidate Barack Obama framed his response in terms of her story.

"She seems like a compelling person," Obama said, "obviously a terrific story, a personal story."

No doubt about it. In this version of Northern Exposure, the former beauty queen and journalism graduate marries her high-school sweetheart, has five kids, and as a self-described hockey mom becomes mayor of a small town, takes down the sitting governor from her own party in a primary, and sweeps the state in a general election.

There's more. The oldest of her five children is about to deploy to Iraq on the anniversary of 9/11, and the youngest, a babe in arms, has Down syndrome, which Palin learned when she was four months pregnant, but decided to have the child anyway. Furthermore, her teenage daughter is five months pregnant and has also decided to keep her baby. The right-to-life movement, a core Republican constituency, is cheering on both counts.

The governor is pro-life, pro-gun, and has taken on her own party on corruption and waste, having killed the $200-million "Bridge to Nowhere," that McCain often cites as the worst example of political pork in Washington (Alaska got the infrastructure money anyway, but that's another story, and a much less compelling one).

McCain's stunning choice signals a return to his own narrative as a maverick, and her right wing credentials have clearly mobilized a Republican base suspicious of McCain as too moderate. Nor should a mother of five, who runs a state as her other full time job, be dismissed as a lightweight. Politicians do very well by being underestimated.

Does she know anything about foreign policy? Is she ready for questions about where is Georgia, and who is president of Iran? She'd better be. Is there something else about her that didn't turn up in the vetting, before her one face-to-face meeting with McCain last week?

But she wasn't picked for her foreign-policy resumé, she was chosen for her narrative, for her story. And her story, as Obama said, is obviously terrific.

It takes one to know one. Obama's narrative, from the time he first appeared as a keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention, has been the most compelling aspect of his of his public persona.

McCain has a story, too, being widely repeated this week, the story of the downed naval aviator who survived more than five years as a prisoner of war, and went on to devote a lifetime of service to his country, always marching to his own beat rather than the party drum.

Sometimes the story doesn't have to be a personal narrative, it can be about an event, as in Hurricane Gustav blowing into New Orleans on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

There were obvious comparisons to a defining moment in the Bush presidency, its tipping point. On the core government attribute of competence, the Bush administration failed miserably. The government of the United States failed to look after its own people, most of whom happened to be black.

This was not going to happen twice on the Republicans' watch, certainly not in the middle of their nominating convention. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had been scheduled to deliver farewell speeches to the convention on Monday night, which were cancelled, ostensibly so that the president could personally take charge of the relief effort, which he failed to do during Katrina.

The cancellation was not only appropriate, it was undoubtedly to the immense relief of McCain, who really doesn't need any more reminders that he's seeking the third term of George W. Bush. This was not exactly a "win one for the Gipper" moment, as Ronald Reagan asked the first George Bush to do for him in an emotional farewell address 20 years ago.

But not content to see the back of Bush, McCain also flew into Mississippi on the weekend, as if that would stop the hurricane, and said it was time to put on hats as Americans, not Republicans, in keeping with his convention theme of "country first."

This is the first time in history that a weather event has run a national political convention. But it's about the story, all about the story.

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