OK, quick, close your eyes. Where is Barack Obama from?
He’s from Young. He’s from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He’s from TV.
John McCain? He’s from Military. He’s from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state.
Chicago? That’s where Mr. Obama wound up. Modern but Midwestern: a perfect place to begin what might become a national career. Arizona? That’s where Mr. McCain settled, a perfect place from which to launch a more or less conservative career in the 1980s.
Neither man has or gives a strong sense of place in the sense that American politicians almost always have, since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, and Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and FDR of New York, and JFK of Massachusetts. Even Bill Clinton was from a town called Hope, in Arkansas, even if Hope was really Hot Springs. And in spite of his New England pedigree, George W. Bush was a Texan, as was, vividly, LBJ.
Messrs. Obama and McCain are not from a place, but from an experience. Mr. McCain of course was a Navy brat. He bounced around, as members of the families of our military must, and wound up for a time in the suburbs of Washington. Mr. Obama’s mother was somewhat itinerant, in search of different climes. He was born in Hawaii, which Americans on the continent don’t experience so much as a state as a destination, a place of physical beauty and singular culture. You go there to escape and enjoy. Then his great circling commenced: Indonesia, back to Hawaii, on to the western coast of America, then to the eastern coast, New York and Cambridge. He circled the continent, entering it, if you will, in Chicago, where he settled in his 30s.
The lack of placeness with both candidates contributes to a sense of their disjointedness, their floatingness. I was talking recently with a journalist who’s a podcaster. I often watch him in conversation on the Internet. I told him I’m always struck that he seems to be speaking from No Place, with some background of beige wall that could exist anywhere. He leans in and out of focus. It gives a sense of weightlessness. He’s like an astronaut floating without a helmet.
That’s a little what both candidates are like to me.