Posted by: Jeff Lester on March 3, 2008
The only letter I ever had published in a comic book was in Transmetropolitan. I don’t remember the issue but I’m pretty sure it’s issue #16, above–this cover of Spider as The Statue of Liberty rings some bells. Somewhere, Ellis had written about the ’92 election race that was currently underway, and posited a pretty good theory about who gets to be President. (As I recall, the theory is basically, “Whoever wants it the most, gets it.” Clinton, Ellis pointed out, wanted the Presidency in a way Bush I didn’t.
I wrote back a response suggesting that, in fact, what we were seeing from Bush was petulance–the speed with which we devoured news media had changed, and what had been some very classic re-election gambits had fallen flat because of it. Consequently, Bush was upset and frustrated by having done everything right and still losing. Because I mentioned Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 of which Ellis is a fan (although is there anyone who reads that book who doesn’t become a fan?), and maybe because I laid on the Transmet rah-rah thick at the end (hey, what can I say? I was a fan), Ellis ran the letter.
Last week, getting ready to leave Buenos Aires, I saw this Obama ad that repurposes dialogue from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Think these two bits of trivia–my letter in a comic book, and a political ad that takes language from a comic book–justify me writing about the Presidential election on a comic book blog? If not, don’t follow me after the jump.
I suppose another connection between Presidential campaigns and comic books–superhero books in particular, I’m thinking–is the true and pressing need for character and continuity: just as Marvel and DC must make turn out dozens of stories a year about Batman or Spider-Man and make sure the heroes remain “in character,” so too must the people running presidential campaigns create a “character” out of the running politician with which the public can identify (or at least consistently recognize), and tell dozens of stories about that character from one state to the next, from one puff piece to the next, from one debate to the next.
The stories a political campaign tells about a candidate are either variations on one story or smaller stories that reinforce a larger narrative, and while the details of the narrative may vary, but the point of every political narrative is the same: this politician has earned the right to hold the position they’re running for, and their experiences will ensure they will represent the people in doing so. Because the point of the narrative is the same for every person running (and every superhero), the creation of character, the public’s attachment to this character, and the degree to which the narrative’s details resonate with the current concerns of the public, are what allows politicians (and superheroes) to survive and/or thrive in their respective arenas. These things distinguish them.
Consequently, the first move of the opposition is usually to point out areas of contradiction between the created persona and the actual person, pointing to incidents in the politician’s past that do not gibe with the current persona; the opposition uses continuity to back up their condemnation of the politician, similar to the way an outraged fanboy might use continuity to condemn a current handling of a superhero as “out of character.” If an opponent can’t undermine the created persona, they might attack the candidate’s narrative by trying to convince the public that their concerns aren’t the concerns the narrative addresses.
My letter to Ellis all those years ago talked about how Bush’s petulance stemmed from doing all the work to create a narrative for the upcoming election–that of a successful military commander who had led the country into and through a successful military operation–to no avail whatsoever. Unfortunately for Bush, the period of good will created by a small, successful military operation had been drastically reduced by the influence of CNN and the public’s exposure to 24 hour news–the exposure meant a story’s hook became stale more quickly, and Bush entered the election with the successful gulf war as “old news,” and the troubled economy as what people really cared about.
Bush was also frustrated and petulant because the only successful weapon his campaign had against Bill Clinton–Clinton’s infidelity–was checked by Bush’s own profligate tendencies: the Democrats had info that strongly suggested Bush had continued, at least through his vice-presidency, to keep a mistress, and so the issue of morality never entered into the ’92 election.
Bush had been handicapped by both his own indulgence and a change in the culture he couldn’t have predicted. No wonder he seemed resentful, angry and dismissive during the ’92 campaign, and no wonder he lost. His re-election narrative held no power, and the conflict between his public persona and his private character had left him unable to attack his opponent.
Now, although I’m an Obama man (with some reluctance) and have very little patience for Hillary Clinton, I find the “I Am Hope” ad more than a little depressing, not least because it highlights for me the degree to which Hillary, like Bush I, has had her narrative derailed.
I couldn’t tell you for how long Hillary has been planning her campaign (I’m gonna guess it’s been at least since ’96) but I can tell you it was pretty obvious what her campaign narrative was going to be: her election to president was going to be a historic achievement–not for her, but for the country. Making her the first woman president would show how far the U.S. had come in gender relations. It was going to be an unavoidable sign of a new day in American politics, and it would imply a centuries long struggle between the genders was if not over, then at least at the beginning of its end. The goal from (let’s say) ’96 on was to acquire enough practical political experience to check the naysayers who would try to derail this narrative as so much glitter and happy hippie smoke.
However, just as Bush I was unprepared for 24 hour news cycle to erode gulf war good will, Hillary was unprepared for Barack Obama to enter the campaign and, essentially, usurp her narrative. Suddenly everything Hillary would’ve been saying about her campaign was being said by Obama; the only angle she really had was to fall back on was her practical political experience, and attacking Obama’s narrative, suggesting that her narrative, not his, was the one that mattered most to the public.
The “I Am Hope” banner ad suggests how well that’s going for her. Throw in her own character failings (from what I can tell, Hillary, like many lawyers, reserves her charm and grace for those she believes to be equals and superiors but isn’t nearly as good with those serving under her–Washington is supposedly littered with secret service men who’ll complain bitterly she turned them into baggage handlers and errand boys, dismissing their job duties as secondary to the chores she assigned them), and Hillary is now in the role of Choronzon, smug demonlord brought low by the prince of dreams. Considering all the years she expected to be playing the Morpheus role, I find it kinda painful, kinda like the way it’s painful to watch the worst kid in acting class (who’s of course convinced he’s the best) see the casting sheet and realize he’s not going to be playing the lead.
The Democratic race for the nomination isn’t over yet, but it could be very soon. If it ends with Obama taking the nomination, will Hillary be able to re-craft her persona to make a suitable running mate? Will she be able to mesh her narrative with Obama’s?
I wish I could take this entry the extra mile and bring Neil Gaiman’s Sandman back into all this, but it’s been too long since I last read the series and the books aren’t nearby. But isn’t Sandman about, among other things, the usurpation of narrative? I’m thinking here of the early arcs in particular where stories are never resolved by Morpheus in the way his enemies intend, and frequently open characters to a new understanding of their place in their universe. In Sandman, the loss of one’s intended narrative and the revelation of one’s true character is usually a beneficial thing. In presidential campaigns, it frequently is not.