Thursday, August 28, 2008

DNC Day 3 - The Trauma that Enables

There was so much speculation in the previous week over why Joe Biden would be picked as VP. The most common argument is the Foriegn Policy stuff, which will beef up (by association) the resume of Obama, and hopefully deflect those "fears" of not being ready to engage with the rest of the world. Which is surprising since its been John McCain's gaffe on everything from Czeckoslavakia, to Iraq-Pakistan border, to Sunni vs. Shia, who has consistently proven that he may be old and experienced, but not necessarily ready to engage with the rest of the world.

But during the lead up to his speech tonight, just about everything positive from his biography was dragged out to try and make him feel like the ideal candidate for everyone. Hawks, peacniks, women, minorities, etc.

There are two things that struck me about Biden's "being" tonight that I think were absolutely part of the Obama team's rationale for picking Biden. When I saw "being" I mean the sort of composite presence that he can create, the types of arguments, criticisms, defenses that he can enable or disable. So, the "foreign policy stuff" is key in how people perceive his being, but there are also thing such as plain-spokeness, frankness, ga'kumuentos. When you think tactically, you are drawing every potential positive or negative from this being. It is not just someone's life, but also that which is said about them, the kinds of things, emotions, ideas they stimulate.

The first of these things is his son Bo Biden, and his much touted public service and military service. Several weeks ago, although Obama is still on the right side of the the wars America is fighting today, he doesn't necessarily control the terms of the debate. This is something McCain deftly proved by his repeating of the phrase "the surge worked" over and over and over. By doing so, he eventually able to take away Obama's advantage (at least rhetorically) in terms of how to talk about the war. McCain changed it so that only the last year and a half matters and nothing beyond that.

With Biden and his son, a politician, a public servant who still serves and will still go off to war (although as a JAG), it gives Democrats a flexibility and potential foil against McCain's claim to describing and defining the war. Whether or not Biden can change this remains to be seen, but it is possible.

Secondly, although I think most Americans and Democrats didn't know about this prior to the initial announcement that he was Obama's choice for VP, is the story about the loss of his child and his wife prior to being sworn in as the youngest Senator in United States history. This story was repeated over and over tonight, from multiple angles, with his son bringing it up in the most effective way. But ultimately what this story boils down to is that it is a form of trauma which authenticates a person. The story of Biden's humanity and earnestness, his toughness, strength and determination can all be traced to his experiences in this midst of this trauma. This was tied together pefectly during the video made for Biden prior to his introduction, where his wife made clear that he sworn to take the train home everyday to Delaware from Washington D.C. as a promise to his sons following the death of their sister and mother.

It was interesting to hear this mentioned so much tonight, because it reminded me of another trauma which enables a certain Senator running for President from Arizona.

Although the media has developed a narrative of John McCain which swears that he is cautious and uncomfortable about sharing his POW experiences or stories with people, he certainly doesn't seem to have any issues now. He is mentioning it all the time, in the context of anything and everthing, he has even mentioned it in the context of health care and what his favorite songs are!!!! This trauma makes John McCain. Even if he doesn't mention it, it is always there, authenticating him, making him seem like a truer, tougher, better and greater figure.

In comparision to McCain's suffering imprisonment and torture, Biden's trauma is small, yet I wonder if that story was part of the appeal of Biden. Obama's story of economic and social hardship and suffering is too normal, even if Obama is supposed to be "foreign" or "elite" when he speaks about his family and his background, it is very normal. To have problems economically is not trauma, it does not make you authentic, it does not enable you in anyway or make your arguments stronger, or provide you more breathing room in terms of criticism or attacks. But Biden's story is much more unique, complex, a mixture of a tragic death coming, just as a young politician beings his career. And just as McCain's suffering in Vietnam becomes the basis for his identity as a strong, determined and straight talking maverick, Biden's trauma functions in the same way, giving him an aura of family closeness, love, a realness through his surival under such pressure and horrible circumstances.

But just as with Biden's son serving in Iraq, it remains to be seen how effective this will be.

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