Of course, they’re both really Scots, you know. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, are supposedly both descended from the same Scottish King: William the Lion who ruled from 1165 to 1214, according to an American genealogist, Gary Boyd Roberts reported in the Daily Telegraph in January. Make of that what you will. Alex Salmond has both their numbers.
John McCain is intensely proud of his Caledonian ancestry, as he makes plain in his book “Faith of my Fathers”. His family left Scotland in the 18th Century, and he even claims to be descended from Robert the Bruce. Obama’s views on his alleged Scottishness – supposedly through Edward FitzRandolph who emigrated to America in the 17th century – are unknown.
Of course this genealogical trivia tells us precisely nothing about the politics of the US presidency. However, it does remind you that everyone is related to everyone else in America, and that a lot of them came from Scotland. It also underlines an essential truth about Barack Obama: that he is almost impossible to pin down by conventional ethnic stereotypes.
With a Kenyan father and a white American mother, Obama is neither african-american nor white-caucasian. He grew up partly in Indonesia, where he went to a Muslim school – his middle name is “Hussein” – before ending up in Hawaii, which is about as far as you can get from middle America and still be in the USA. When people say he is the first black presidential candidate, they could equally say that he is not actually black, and he’s not really American. Sixteen percent of Americans believe he is a Muslim,, and interviewers on Fox TV delight in mispronouncing his name as “Osama”. Yes, only one letter separates Barack Obama from the boss of al Qaeda.
I find this ethnic heterogeneity the most attractive feature of the Obama candidacy. He really is a modern American everyman – or as near to it as you can get. No, he doesn’t represent women, but Hillary does that. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be a good president, or even that he will make a decisive break with the disastrous foreign policies which have turned half the world against America. However, he remains a potent metaphor for all that is best in the American constitution – the stuff about it being self-evident that all men are created equal.
Yup, I know that women are not quite as equal as men. And for the black American underclass it is equality of misery. But he has lived that contradiction. Barack Obama’s own life experience is his best recommendation. He made a conscious decision to align himself with the black American dispossessed as a community activist in Chicago. His wife, Michelle, knows about being part of an underclass. His election would represent atonement for America’s wars and for its capitulation to the politics of the super-rich. If America can’t come to its senses under Obama, it can’t do it at all.
Unlike the rest of the Democrat political establishment, Obama opposed the Iraq war from the outset. He has made clear his intention to be the first American leader in thirty years to sit down and talk with Middle East leaders, including the Iranians, “without precondition”. When he pulls American troops out of Iraq it will be difficult for Muslim extremists to claim that American is on a white-Christian fundamentalist crusade to destroy Islam.
Cynics will say: so what? America was in the region for oil not religion, and Obama has already started to fudge the timetable for troop withdrawal. He sacked a member of his team for talking to Hamas and he told the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee last week that Jerusalem must remain “the undivided capital of the Israeli state”, and that he will do “everything in my power” to stop Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. It remains the case that no serious American politician can afford to alienate the Jewish lobby. But we can’t write him off for that – at least not yet. His father was Muslim, so he understands Islam, and can talk across the clash of civilisations.
Anyway, think of the alternative. John McCain may claim to be an American Scot, but that is only to bolster his image as an aggressive conservative. His hero is Barry Goldwater, the Republican hard-liner from the 1960s who made a virtue of his willingness to nuke the Russians. McCain is not an identikit Republican – he takes the environment seriously, is liberal on issues like immigration and campaigned against the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay. But he is still a leading exponent of what has been called “American exceptionalism” – the concept that the only thing that matters in foreign policy is America’s direct interests, narrowly defined. It is a philosophy which stems from the neo-conservative “Project for the New American Century” and was the kind of thinking that got America into the Iraq war – which, of course, McCain supported.
Obama’s historic purpose is to reconnect to America’s other tradition – of exercising ‘soft’ power rather than ‘hard’ power. Soft power was the way the US defeated the Soviet Union not through military conquest but through cultural osmosis. It was as much American rock music and Levi consumerism that undermined the Warsaw Pact and brought down the communist bureaucracies. Soft power was the way America rebuilt post war Europe by Marshall Aid, rather than through the scorched earth policy it has employed in Iraq. Soft power revives the inviolable principle of national self-determination, as proposed by President Woodrow Wilson after WW1, which underpins the United Nations.
But will Obama win? Is America ready for a black president? Well, just look at him. He’s the most charismatic politician in the world – a black Kennedy. His primary campaign mobilised young people and minorities – the groups Clinton thought didn’t vote any more. Thanks to Hillary, most of Obama’s negatives have already been exposed, like his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Americanism. But McCain has skeletons too: he was friends with the Mafia boss Joe “Bananas” Bonano; his wife was a drug addict who stole from her own charity; he has a notorious temper and has a reputation for extramarital affairs.
I think McCain will be careful not to throw too much mud in case it sticks to him. His tax-cutting conservatism is out of time, as is his dumb-ass militarism. America is a country in decline, an international pariah with an economy wrecked by financial excess. The Barack identity represents America’s best hope of political renewal. America really has no choice but to embrace him. It could be their last hope.