When the term "character issue" first became the political lexicon's most persistent cliché, it seemed to mainly denote the seven deadly sins of presidential wannabes: drink, drugs, gambling, adultery, perjury, payola and an unsuitable spouse. But as elections have come and gone and imperfect people have done good things, even if they once smoked marijuana or danced with a lobbyist's lampshade on their heads, the issue has become more nuanced. Perhaps all along, without quite knowing it, voters sought a person who embodied in his character what was most needed in the country.
Franklin Roosevelt projected strength at a time when the nation required strength. John Kennedy epitomized vigor at a moment when America needed a second wind. Bill Clinton, for all his shortcomings, was a man who truly felt the pain of a country that was awash in therapy-speak and self-help books.
This effect explains how Barack Obama has captured the attention and the approval of even those who, a year ago, would have been skeptical or hostile. The guy is steady. His campaign has now made the word its mantra, and, boy, has he earned the right. There has rarely been a moment when the United States needed an unflappable leader more, and there has rarely been a candidate who has so steadfastly refused to rattle.
For nearly two years the man has played his own methodical game, ignoring the cries of pundits or party regulars. During those times when it looked as though he were faltering or fading, most conspicuously after the Republican convention, when Sarah Palin seemed like a bright idea instead of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, the Greek chorus rose: Strike out! Fight back! Be tough! Be rough! Obama proceeded apace.
Instead it was John McCain who steered in response to the potholes, and so drove into the ditch. What happened to the much-vaunted straight shooter? He found himself the headliner at what seemed to be reunions of the John Birch Society, forced to correct those who shouted that his opponent, child of Kansas, reared in Hawaii, living in Illinois, was an Arab or a terrorist. And at a moment when Wall Street seemed built on quicksand, Senator McCain was as unpredictable as the Dow, ricocheting from one set of talking points to another, abruptly dropping them when they got no traction.
The most useless line the McCain campaign tried was the existential question "Who is the real Barack Obama?" Despite attempts by the right wing to create a piñata Obama, improbable parts ambition, danger and socialism, the answer is clear: for whatever reason, he's a smart and temperate person who is really comfortable in his own skin. It's weird that this should be so, given his past. A teenage mother, an absent father, a peripatetic childhood, a black man raised by a white family, a blueprint for insecurity and anger. As a parent I would love to understand how instead he became someone conspicuously secure.
This was not how the play of personalities was supposed to go in this race. Obama started out as the shake-'em-up change agent, the newbie who hopscotched his way to the top. McCain was supposed to be the veteran with the steady hand who'd worked his way up the electoral ladder, a man of granite for rocky times. Those roles have now completely reversed. During the third debate the younger man appeared infinitely more mature than the elder. Obama was unshakable, almost preternaturally so, considering that his opponent interrupted him repeatedly, smirked at his answers and grimaced so oddly that at times he seemed deranged.
McCain has always been irascible and angry—his short fuse and barbed comebacks, more than his voting record, account for the "maverick" label—but rarely have voters seen this on such conspicuous display. As he rolled his eyes and chuckled bitterly at much of what the man across the table said, it was disconcerting to think of him doing the same with the leaders of Russia or Iran. When he ate up precious debate time complaining that his feelings had been hurt by criticism from an Obama supporter, it seemed that he thought the race was not about the people's business, but his.
The question now is "Who is the real John McCain?" For the sake of victory he sold his soul to the devil, to the Mephistophelean tactics of Karl Rove, which consist mainly of throwing mud until it sticks. Americans are giddy believers in progress, but our presidential elections always seem to be fighting the last war; the post-Rovean era is upon us, and McCain was the last to know. When the smears revved up, his approval ratings sank. The red-meat Republicans yelling imprecations at McCain-Palin rallies are still stuck in the culture wars. Here's the thing: the culture wars are over. The liberal side won. How else to explain the spectacle of a conservative vice presidential candidate moved to confide during a debate that some of her best friends are gay?
In every election there is something intangible that speaks to voters apart from issues and positions. They search for a sense of how a candidate's character matches the times. Eight years ago, when things were booming, they decided to take a chance on a guy who seemed like a boffo guest at a barbecue, and they got burned. Now they are searching for a person who will remain unflappable in the face of crisis, who can deal calmly with the extraordinary challenges he will face in January. That is why John McCain has faltered in this race. That is why Barack Obama has surged.