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Opposing narratives of success in politics

By Stephanie Li

While our presidential candidates are known far in advance of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, party conventions remain intriguing spectacles for the kind of human detail they offer about the men who aspire to the Oval Office. Every four years pundits and political commentators observe that conventions have become increasingly scripted affairs that lack the spontaneity of times past, but party conventions serve to present individual narratives as much as specific policy positions. Viewers of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC) may not know what each party plans to do in Afghanistan or with our nation’s struggling public schools, but after three days of speeches, they know something about the biography of each candidate. The stories about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered by the DNC and RNC are remarkable because they offer such opposing versions of American identity.

President Bill Clinton opened his DNC speech with a quote from Democratic Chairmen, Bob Strauss, who “used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.” The narrative of self-reliant uplift has been a mainstay of the political memoir especially those penned by presidents and presidential candidates. However, Clinton’s speech, hailed by many as the most effective of the entire campaign season, seeks to dismantle what Jill Lepore identifies as the predictable trajectory of presidential narratives. She writes that “even the best of them tell, with rare exception, the same Jacksonian story: scrappy maverick who splits rails and farms peanuts and shoots moose battles from the log cabin to the White House by dint of grit, smarts, stubbornness, and love of country.” By contrast, Clinton assured listeners that Democrats “believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”

Clinton’s focus on working together to build a better country, one that strengthens the middle class and offers greater opportunity to the poor, resonates with the themes of Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). Our current President’s self-conscious coming of age story challenges the image of rugged individualism long associated with presidential biographies. Obama writes eloquently about how his mother, maternal grandparents, and paternal relatives shaped his life in fundamental ways. In her speech at the DNC, Michelle Obama described how she was first drawn to her husband because his family sacrificed for him in the same way that her own parents ensured that she received a quality education.

President Barack Obama and his daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, watch on television as First Lady Michelle Obama begins her speech at the Democratic National Convention, in the Treaty Room of the White House, Tuesday night, Sept. 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By contrast, when discussing her husband’s rise to prominence at the RNC, Ann Romney stated, “I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it.” Mrs. Romney didn’t disregard the power of working together or helping others. In one of the most powerful lines of her speech, she said of her husband, “Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.” What’s striking here is that even when emphasizing her husband’s support of and outreach to others, Ms. Romney presents him as a kindly benefactor, not as someone who ever relied upon the help of others. The Romneys may indeed “help their neighbors, their churches and their communities,” but this is help they have never needed. While Michelle Obama spoke of her husband’s vulnerabilities and the people who made his success possible, Ann Romney presented a picture of her husband as a tireless patriot who will take the country “to be a better place.”

Ms. Romney’s speech echoed the theme of the RNC’s second day, “We built it,” a rejoinder to Obama’s widely circulated comments from a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia. The President, stated:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Obama could have been talking about himself and his own rise to national and international prominence. In his staid speech at the DNC, he employed the second person pronoun as much as the first. Every victory he identified from the last four years was followed by a rousing, “you were the change… you did that… you made that possible… you did that.” For Obama, there is little separation between his success and the people who made his success possible. His life narrative embraces collectivity while Romney adheres to the tired conventions of rugged individualism. Increasingly the choice between the presidential candidates is one between productive cooperation and stark self-reliance.

Stephanie Li is associate professor of English at the University of Rochester. She is the author of “The Parallel Lives of Bill Clinton” in American Literary History and three books including Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama (2011) and Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women (2009).

Recent Americanist scholarship has generated some of the most forceful responses to questions about literary history and theory. Yet too many of the most provocative essays have been scattered among a wide variety of narrowly focused publications. Covering the study of US literature from its origins through the present, American Literary History provides a much-needed forum for the various, often competing voices of contemporary literary inquiry.

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