To better understand this year’s two presidential nominees, I’ve read their books. John McCain has written four—all co-authored by Mark Salter. Such recognition of a co-author is remarkable in itself, for most politicians use “ghost writers” who are not credited for the book’s production. McCain tells the story of his early years in Faith of My Fathers (New York: HarperCollins, c. 1999). Beginning with a candor that continually marks him, and noting that Victor Frankl stressed our uniquely human freedom to choose how we respond to various situations, McCain laments that he too often chose “carelessly, often for no better reason than to indulge a conceit” (p. vii). Indeed he looks back over his life with many regrets! Fortunately, he often managed to choose wisely, and finds in his story “a balance between pride and regret, between liberty and honor” (p. vii).
The book’s title reveals its message, for McCain writes proudly about his father and grandfather—both military heroes, four star admirals, indelible prototypes for their progeny. They were also Christians, following the Episcopal tradition, though they were hardly models of piety. McCain’s grandfather, John Sidney, was a pioneer of naval aviation who displayed great courage, both physical and moral, and exuded a certain “irreverent, eccentric individualism” (p. 17). He played a major role in America’s Pacific theater during WWII and stood beside General Douglas MacArthur when the Japanese surrendered on the battleship Missouri. Senator McCain’s father, John Sidney, Jr. (a “small man with a big heart”), found certain doors closed to him because of his stature and chose to become a submariner, serving with great distinction in WWII. Moving up the ranks he became, in time, the commander of all naval operations in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. Though neither man was physically much present in young McCain’s life, since they were off to sea for extended periods, they were both powerfully present in his mind as he determined to follow their footsteps. There’s no search for personal identity for him—he knows who he is. He’s a McCain! And he wants to honor his name.
After devoting one-fourth of the book to his fathers, McCain tells his own story, quite often in self-deprecating ways. He was an easily-angered “strong-willed child” who tested his mother’s patience. In time he became what she called a “hell-raiser” in high school and college. He managed to graduate from elite institutions—Washington D.C.’s Episcopal High and the U.S. Naval Academy—but he laments largely wasting those years in youthful follies. He’s obviously an intelligent man, but school routines (apart from athletics) were never his forte. Graduating fifth from the bottom of his class from the Naval Academy, he launched his career as a Navy flyer. “My early years as a naval officer,” he laments, “were an even more colorful extension of my rowdy days at the Academy” (p. 153). Apparently the only thing he took seriously was the art of flying—and that he did reasonably well!
Suitably trained, he went off to war in 1966, and the last half of the book details his years in Vietnam. He first showed his courage when a fire swept the flight deck of his aircraft carrier. He then joined the crew of the U.S.S. Orishany, flying missions over North Vietnam. One-third (38) of his fellow pilots were killed or captured. McCain himself was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi. He was seriously wounded and then survived both his largely untreated injuries and the atrocious conditions and periodic tortures of a prisoner of war. Yet, while he describes his own injuries and beatings, much of his book celebrates others—his fellow POWs, his companions in prison. He grants that his father’s position led the Vietnamese to give him special treatment at times. But he also explains why he refused to trade on his father’s renown to secure the early release that was offered him.
Though readers such as I easily see him as a courageous “hero,” the image he draws in his book is more of a survivor who, bolstered by the support of his buddies, managed to endure until he was finally freed. He learned that his individualistic temperament, his “faith” in himself, fared poorly in prison. “During the worst moments of captivity,” he says, “keeping our faith in God, country, and one another was as difficult as it was imperative” (p. 253). Now and then—as when McCain took the lead in holding a worship service on Christmas, or when he tells about a Vietnamese soldier whose Christian commitment led him to treat him kindly, or when he mentions praying while suffering—one glimpses McCain’s Christian faith. But generally he seems to have found his strength in his comrades rather than religion.
Having read this account, I’ll never again see McCain, moving awkwardly, unable to raise his arms, without remembering the terrible injuries he incurred while serving his country.
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McCain and Salter followed up the first autobiography with a sequel, Worth the Fighting For: A Memoir (New York: Random House, c. 2002). Returning from Vietnam, McCain went through a painful process of physical rehabilitation, determined to resume his naval career. Few believed it possible, but he did so and rose through the ranks to significant command positions in a few years. But as the years passed he realized that neither his temperament nor his deteriorating physical condition justified finishing his life as a career officer. Ever longing to serve his country, he decided (after watching, as the Navy’s liaison officer with the Senate, the political processes in the nation’s capital) to devote himself to politics. In particular, having studied the Vietnam War—and knowing that politicians, not soldiers, lost it—he wanted to make sure men such as Jimmy Carter would not continue to undermine the nation’s military forces. He also saw the positive influence of politicians such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Democratic Senator from Washington with whom he often traveled and came to deeply admire) and John Tower (Republican Senator from Texas), both of whom he counted as close friends and mentors.
So in the early ‘80s McCain resigned from the Navy and moved to Arizona with his new wife, Cindy, determined to pursue public service. (McCain’s first marriage collapsed after he returned from Vietnam, and he unfailingly blames his “selfishness and immaturity” for that failure, praising his first wife whenever she is mentioned). He quickly involved himself in the state’s Republican Party and managed to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. In Washington, he supported the conservative agenda of President Ronald Reagan, but he also developed a close friendship with Mo Udall, one of Arizona’s most powerful (and liberal) politicians, who greatly helped him better understand his new home state’s political nuances. Ever ambitious, when Senator Barry Goldwater retired, McCain campaigned for his seat and successfully won the 1988 election, serving thenceforth in the U.S. Senate.
McCain recounts his many endeavors and adventures, triumphs and failures as a Congressman and Senator. He discusses his unsuccessful defense of his friend John Tower, who was denied the first President Bush’s appointment as Secretary of Defense. Just as Democratic Senators had denied Robert Bork a seat on the Supreme Court, so too they rejected Tower’s nomination in equally spurious ways. The Kenneth Keating affair also merits many pages in this book, for McCain was one of the “Keating Five” accused of providing favors for one of the chief culprits in the Savings and Loan collapse in the late ‘80s. Though he was cleared of any culpability, his friendship with Keating in Arizona—and meeting with his emissaries in Washington—led to McCain’s “worst mistake in my life” (p. 246).
In the process of recording such events, McCain sets forth some of his guiding principles. He clearly loves his country and has devoted himself to her service. He cares much for courage, integrity and honor, in politics as well as military service. So he devotes several chapters to heroic figures who helped shape his personal philosophy. His favorite film, Viva Zapata! features a heroic leader, fighting for freedom and justice. He celebrates the baseball legend, Ted Williams, who was both an extraordinary pilot in WWII and the Korean War, as well as being perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history. Conversely, he looks at certain foreign relations endeavors, such as Bill Clinton’s general approach to world crises, with the clear-eyed realism of a prisoner-of-war who dismisses as laughable many of the rhetorical and theatrical gyrations of “leaders” who lack the courage to speak truthfully and act courageously.
At the same time, he openly admits to his many failures in doing what should have been done. “Were I to catalog all my faults,” he says, “they would run the length of this book” (p. xviii). Such refreshing candor, for me, marks McCain as not simply a “maverick” but as an honorable man.
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McCain and Salter have also published two books providing historical illustrations of the traits McCain admires. Whereas I attentively read his autobiographies, I only skimmed and sampled sections of these books, though I find them important inasmuch as they reveal the values he reveres. One assumes that Salter did the research and writing, with McCain selecting the subjects and overseeing the process. In Character Is Destiny (New York: Random House, c. 2005), we find 34 “inspiring stories every young person should know and every adult should remember.” For example, we find “honor” illustrated in the honesty of St Thomas More, who was executed by Henry VIII for upholding papal authority. Then there’s the “authenticity” of St Joan of Arc, who died for her convictions and the “dignity” of Viktor Frankl, who survived Nazi concentration camps. We should admire and emulate the “diligence” of Winston Churchill and the “cooperation” exemplified by UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden.
McCain and Salter’s companion volume, Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them (New York: Hatchette Book Group, c. 2007), deals with what philosophers label “prudence”—discerning what’s right in order to make the good decisions. Thus there is a section on “Awareness,” as evident in the coaching career of Branch Rickey, who decided to bring Jackie Robinson into the major leagues as a Brooklyn Dodger. “Foresight” marked the career of Winston Churchill in the 1930s, when he heard “the steady drummer” of impending war when most of his peer listened to the sirens of “peace in our time. Much may be learned about great historical figures in this book. More importantly, one senses that McCain has carefully considered what it takes to make equally great and difficult decisions. Assuming McCain ponders the lessons presented in these two books, we have an others-oriented politician who looks to the best examples of the past as he ponders the decisions to be made for today.
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Barack Obama’s first book is his autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Crown, c. 1995). Publishers approached him while he was still a student at Harvard Law School, asking him to write his autobiography simply because he was the first African-American president of the Law Review! Given a significant advance, he began writing the book as soon as he graduated, before he’d done anything other than “community organizing” in Chicago for several years in the late ‘80s. Thus, as the title indicates, Dreams from My Father is an inner journey of self-understanding, largely defined by his utterly absent but desperately desired father, Barack Obama, Sr., and his determination to self-identify as African-American. Thus, as Obama, Jr. acknowledges, there is a dreamlike, fictional dimension to the book—individuals’ names are changed and at times seem to be a composite of several persons. Nor is it a chronological account of his first 30 years. He devotes one-third of the book to a trip to Kenya that is (I’ve learned from other sources) actually a fusion of two trips. Most of the Kenyan details focus upon his family, moving about the country meeting and trying to understand his father in the light of Africa. Lengthy dialogues are, as in novels, invented.
Nevertheless Obama tells the story of his birth in Honolulu to an American woman and Kenyan man who met at the University of Hawaii. Given the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree in economics at Harvard University, his father soon abandoned his wife and son and moved to Boston, where he began living with another woman, who would follow him back to Kenya and become his third wife (he apparently never divorced his first wife, a Kenyan). Then his mother married an Indonesian who’d come to the University of Hawaii, and they moved to his home, where Obama attended elementary schools. That marriage also floundered, and Barack, his mother and half-sister, returned to Honolulu, where she resumed her studies in anthropology. (While the Obama speaks respectfully of his mother, who died in 1995, the year this book was published, she is a surprisingly peripheral figure in his story.) When she finished her studies, she determined to continue her anthropological work by returning to Indonesia, but she wanted her son to get his education in Honolulu. He then spent his adolescence with her parents, who were in many ways the only stable “parents” he’d ever know. His generally unemployed grandfather, who seemed to have failed at most everything he attempted while moving about the country, offered a rather constant criticism of the “system” that had failed him. But his grandmother became a highly successful woman who rose to a significant position in a Honolulu bank and provided the income for the family.
Obama gained entry to the city’s most elite high school, Punahau, but he seems to have majored in drugs and alcohol and basketball rather than academics. On his own, however, he read, rather voraciously, writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and Franz Fanon, whose radicalism shaped his budding race-consciousness. Though he seems to have encountered little actual race discrimination (the minor incidents he mentions are quite trivial), his reading fueled a “black rage” that seemed to become part of his self-identification as an oppressed African-American (though his Kenyan father was neither American nor in the remotest sense affected by this nation’s history of slavery). He was also quite taken by an elderly friend (and drinking buddy) of his grandfather’s, a black poet identified only as Frank (in fact Frank Marshall Davis, who was well-know for his advocacy of radical, often overtly Communist causes).
Graduating from high school, Obama then went to Los Angeles, where he attended another prestigious institution, Occidental College. Here his main concerns were still extracurricular, especially racial discussions and protest meetings. He then finished his university studies in New York, graduating from Columbia University. While there he “decided to become a community organizer” so as to “organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change” (p. 133). After working a couple of years in New York, in 1985 he moved to Chicago and became a “community organizer” as an employee of a Saul Alinsky-inspired organization trying to enlist black churches in social justice endeavors. Here Obama mastered the “change” rhetoric of Alinsky and became acquainted with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, who led one of the large churches Obama needed to support his activism. In the first service Obama attended, Wright preached on “the audacity of hope,” and Obama decided to identify with the church after a tearful response to that message. Disillusioned with his glaring lack of success as a “community organizer,” Obama set off for Harvard Law School, though he says little of those years.
Indeed, though he has attended some of the nation’s finest schools, they apparently played no role in his formation. Rather, he recounts, in lengthy detail, his community organizing efforts and his trip to Kenya, seeking to identity himself as his father’s son. “All my life,” he says, “I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own” (p. 220). His father, of course, had abandoned him when he was two years old, leaving no actual memories. He had returned only once to Honolulu for a few days when his son was 12, making less than a positive impact upon him. So there is a strange, if obviously powerful hunger in Obama’s heart for his father! In Kenya, talking with his relatives, he began to see his father as he was: a brilliant but deeply flawed, alcoholic man with whom he could identify but from whom he must diverge.
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Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown Publishing Co., c. 2006), sets forth his agenda as a presidential candidate. Like his autobiography, this book is skillfully written, but it offers glowing rhetoric and pleasing platitudes rather than reasoned positions or specific proposals. I finished the book with little understanding of his core principles, little appreciation for any philosophical depth. He demonstrates this in his Prologue, where he says: “we need a new kind of politics” shaped by “shared understandings that pull us together as Americans” (p. 9). His central concern is to “begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life. This isn’t to say that I know exactly how to do it. I don’t” (p. 9). Rather, he promises to “suggest in broad strokes the path I believe we should follow” while admitting his views are “partial and incomplete. I offer no unifying theory of American government, nor do these pages provide a manifesto for action” (p. 9). N.B.: there’s no specificity, no substance to such statements! Since he has, in fact accomplished remarkably little it is understandable that he has little to say about his public life. His response to Rick Warren’s question as to when human life begins—that answer requires “a level of specificity that’s above my pay grade”—rather characterizes his treatment of a great many issues. So The Audacity of Hope is largely distinguished by 350 pages of dexterously facile word-smithing!
For example, he devotes a chapter to “values,” and it’s clear he values them. But he sets forth is no objective grounding for his values in Scripture or Natural Law. So it seems one must create his own values and then be true to them. Perhaps the most cogent of his chapters is one on “Our Constitution,” where he identifies with and indicates he would appoint to the Supreme Court justices such as Justice Stephen Breyer, who considers the Constitution a living document needing continual judicial redefinition. Of interest to Christians is Obama’s chapter on “Faith.” He notes that he had virtually no religious instruction or interests as a child. His mother was, apparently, an atheist with save-the-world utopian aspirations. His father, though reared a Muslim, had apparently become an atheist by the time he came to Hawaii; his step-father was an occasionally practicing, rather tepid Muslim; and young Barack never really identified with either Islam or Christianity. Then, dramatically, while attending his first service at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ church in Chicago he found an Afro-centric, black liberationist message that suited his “progressive” concern for “social justice.” He recalls: “I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change” (p. 206).
What struck me in The Audacity of Hope is its real focus: Barack Obama. There’s hardly a hint that he’s read anything or consulted anyone. He seems to decide what he thinks on a purely personal, experiential basis. His chapter on “Politics” deals not with the Founding Fathers and the American system but with his experiences and their educational value. He talks about “the world beyond our borders” by describing the Indonesia of his boyhood, apparently convinced that the world and Indonesia are quite alike. His understanding of Iraq was established by a day-and-a-half visit there. He insists that racial divisions must be bridged, but it’s clear that racial identity is one of the major (and sensitive) concerns in his own life! In short: when I look for the “thoughts” suggested by the book’s subtitle, I found little more than sweeping generalizations, without persuasive specificity, to tell me exactly what they are.