Fineman: What Obama, McCain Have in Common

In many ways, the differences between John McCain and Barack Obama could not be more vivid.

One man is military to the core, the other as civilian as they come. One is a descendant of admirals, the other of a goatherd. One has been in Congress for 26 years, the other for three. The two men disagree on everything from tax cuts to health care to the war in Iraq. The disparity in their ages--a quarter century--is the largest in presidential-campaign history. And, of course, Obama is the first "person of color" to be a major-party standard bearer; McCain cites his own "Nordic" genes for his vulnerability to the sun. It's old school versus new millennium.

As the conventions approach and the fall campaign begins, Obama and McCain are stepping up attacks on one another. Presidential politics is about choices, and the candidates want them to be as stark as possible. On the trail this week, Obama has sharpened his critique, calling McCain's economic policies a "disaster," while McCain has appealed to evangelicals with pointed summaries of his conservative views.

And yet the parallels, in life stories and approaches to politics, are as remarkable as the differences. Consider these examples:

Find a wife and build your base. McCain and Obama were wandering souls, politically and otherwise, until they met the women to whom they are now married. McCain was ostensibly from the Washington area, but really he was "from" the Navy, which meant everywhere and nowhere. He was eager to enter politics, but needed a political home. Arizona was it after he met the beautiful (and wealthy) Cindy Hensley, whose father owned a lucrative beer distributorship in Phoenix (McCain's first marriage ended in an uncontested divorce). McCain, a rootless Republican, dropped anchor in Barry Goldwater's conservative harbor, connected to a sea of future contributors.

Obama's story is similar--without the money. He, too, was a man with ambition but no convenient place to call home. He was born in Hawaii, and had most of his schooling there, but he also had lived in Jakarta, Los Angeles, New York, Cambridge, and Chicago. Only after he met a beautiful, Harvard-trained lawyer named Michelle Robinson did he decide once and for all that the South Side of Chicago--her lifelong neighborhood, where she and her family were well-known, well-connected and well-liked--was the place where he would build his career as a reform-minded Democrat. She gave him the political roots he had lacked.

Reluctant preppies. Obama and McCain don't fit the madras-shorts, popped-collar mold. But they are both products of urban private schools, which shaped them into observant and ambivalent members of the Establishment. At the Punahou School in Honolulu, Obama was popular but says he felt estranged at times. The same was true for McCain, who attended Episcopal High School, in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. Neither man was a stellar student; neither was a paragon of teacher's-pet leadership. Instead, they earned their alpha-male street cred through athletics and an active social life with a whiff of beer (McCain) or weed (Obama).

Distant, remarkable fathers. Reared in a traditional Navy family, McCain knew his dad more by his long, heroic absences than by his presence. The same was true for his father's father: Navy men were meant to be at sea. McCain admired the accomplishments of his four-star forebears--usually from a distance. That distance was exaggerated at times by his father's heavy drinking. McCain, for the most part, was reared by his mother, Roberta, to whom he remains close.

Obama's story is surprisingly similar. He, too, had a distant father with elements of heroism and daring. The elder Obama had been a brilliant student in Kenya. Taken under the wing of English colonialists there, he had attended fine schools and was tapped for a scholarship in America. But he and Obama's mother separated two years after Obama was born and, after obtaining a Ph.D. at Harvard, the father returned to Kenya. His son saw him only once after that. The dad--who was known for his wild streak and inability to hold his liquor--died in a car crash in 1982.

Sons who mine their relationships with their fathers for successful books. The titles are familiar: Obama's "Dreams From My Father," McCain's "Faith of My Fathers." Both candidates have an eye for good writing and literature, and no modern presidential campaign beside this one has featured two men who have written so many volumes. The parental theme is obvious, but not the only one they have pursued. Obama wrote his first book entirely on his own; his second, "The Audacity of Hope," benefited from extensive research by friends and staff, though Obama put it through his own laptop.

In literal terms, McCain doesn't "write" his own best sellers; his best friend and literary alter ego, Mark Salter, does. On the other hand, McCain and Salter have spent literally years together, and Salter works from notes and tapes of McCain speaking on his own history and worldview--a kind of oral presentation that Salter organizes and McCain edits carefully.

Members of Congress. It is an amazing fact that this presidential election is the first one in American history in which two members of Congress are running against each other. And two senators, no less! History shows that members of Congress rarely win; John F. Kennedy was the last member to win the presidency, and that was in 1960.

Not party guys--as in political parties. At least until recently, neither McCain nor Obama has presented himself, or been viewed, as a rank-and-file party guy. McCain made a career out of taking on the GOP powers that be--until now, that is. These days there isn't a conservative interest group or party power group he won't embrace. Obama made an early peace with the Daley family in Chicago, but he simply hasn't been on the national stage long enough to have been defined by the Democratic Party and its folkways. He's built his own party one e-mail address at a time, even as he is now trying to pacify Clintonian traditionalists.