When my grandchildren ask me how George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 (and I have to believe it will be an historical query for some time), they won't hear any grudging rehash of the Florida recount, the Supreme Court decision, Ralph Nader's existence, or Al Gore's failure to win his home state. Taken together, these enduring narratives still only explain half of it -- the half that Gore lost. They do nothing to explain how a talentless dry-drunk ambled his way into a reign of perpetual catastrophe. For that answer, we need a wider-reaching (but not deeper-digging) line of inquiry.
It was the year 2000 and people were primed for change. Fundamentalist Christians yearned for an apocalypse that came too late. The Son of Man didn't appear on cue. For secular folk, the Y2K virus provided a techno-eschatology to match the techno-utopian spirit of the 90s. Like Jesus and the Four Horsemen, this fantastrophy failed to materialize. Absent the bliss of some cathartic rapture -- religious or technological -- the year 2000 lurched uphill to the next odometer crossing and the decade-long Millennial countdown party gave way to an excruciating Millennial hangover.
That hangover found its quick-fix black coffee cure in "W" -- the born-again alcoholic Son of Bush sent as stand-in for the Son of Man.
His opponent, Albert Gore, Jr. was a decent, hardworking intellectual who brought the centrist policy of Bill Clinton without Clintonian narcissism. On numerous occasions before and after the Millennium, W demonstrated that he was an indecent, lazy, stupid and belligerent spendthrift. But the Bushian electorate had deeper emotional needs to fulfill, so they turned to the man who embodied and completed the Millennial narrative of resentment, global destruction, and rebirth.
As Freud said, "in any conflict the stronger emotion wins." And since any objective calculus of mere policy agreement routinely forecasts a Kucinich landslide, we have to "dig shallower" to find out why we get the candidates and leaders we do. We can no longer claim that their ascension owes to stated intentions.
So if W came to power to fulfill an apocalyptic Imaginary, what narrative best characterizes the rise of Barack Obama?
I submit that he's the Virgin President. Much the way Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen: a pure icon of religious extraction selected to bleach away profound divisions in the country. At present, the radical right is quite content to throw away the election (and presumably, the country) to quickly dispose of John McCain and better position the malleable Mormon figurehead Mitt Romney for a 2012 triumph. For the sins of this young century, the born-again Bush will need to be reborn a thousand times over in a repetition complex where the only succor is the sinusoidal roller-coast between two partisan epochs. Obama, like Elizabeth, presents himself as a fusion of these binary opposites. But everything about his limited record shows compromise instead of courage. Virginity not virility.
Despite his sex appeal, Obama represents purity of identity above all else. He is both prior to and beyond the tragic core that defines our country. His record is not an active reversal of Bush-Cheney, but a crooked circumvention of it. He didn't stop warrentless wiretapping, he postponed its expiration. He derives moral authority on the Iraq War only because he wasn't around to authorize it. His long-time spiritual leader and confidante sullies with clownish bombast the very promise of transcendence that Obama nevertheless embodies. But these contradictions don't matter because we only ask that he embody it. Nothing more. Concrete action in the face of an insoluble dilemma like the present world war would immediately taint the impregnable orb we desperately need him to be.
So where could he start? He could confront the homophobia in the very constituency that validates his triumph as an historic Identity Politician. He could keep his campaign finance promise to John McCain and actually risk a triumph of ideas over money. He could vow to remove that flag pin when he's ended the Iraq War -- thus condensing the entire bloated pageant of Mission Accomplished to a simple gesture he must acknowledge every morning he adjusts his lapel as Commander in Chief.
In short, he could start leading people instead of congratulating them for existing. Until he does, he will remain a hollow O, buffed so mirror-bight we'll almost be able to see the poor ghosts howling in our wake for change.