Race for president builds characters: Once again, we’re treated to not just a campaign but a collision of myths.

Todd Gitlin – The Los Angeles Times

Copyright The Los Angeles Times
…Part of what makes this year’s race so volatile — and so absorbing — is the range of archetypes it has mobilized. Sen. John McCain is relatively familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before him.
McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West. Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort — rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men at home in nature (not in our effete cities) — who settled the West on their own. The myth discounts the immense role of the federal government in conquering the natives, seeing that the railroads were built, adjudicating disputes, arranging for water. No matter: Print the legend. In this image of the Old West, history belongs to the man who takes charge, the warrior in command who knows how to shoot and how to lead others to shoot as well.
To McCain’s incarnation of this powerful archetype has been added the sidekick Sarah Palin. Palin mobilizes a powerful and unusual — powerful partly because it is unusual — supplementary combination of myths. She is Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter who foolhardy men underestimate at their peril even if she has a penchant for tall tales. But Palin is also Wonder Woman, the super-heroine whose exploits and attractions appeal to both sexes. And she is Aimee Semple McPherson, the onetime revivalist and moralist of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. In the imagination of her followers, Palin is some combination of Glamour, Outdoor Life, Playboy and DC Comics.
If the Republican ticket harmonizes with deep mythic currents, the Democrats this year are pioneering, and a bit scrambled, in their mythic significance. Obama is the quintessential outsider — a “sojourner,” the New York Times’ David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii, alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world; to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.
Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and derision, a “celebrity,” as the McCain campaign suggested, but he’s also an egghead. He’s the professor — but one who can sink the shot from beyond the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. One thing is clear: He is not a man of the ranch. Personifying a welter of archetypes, he thrills some, confounds others and jams circuits. Some people ask, “Who is this guy?”…
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