The Candidates from Nowhere

The last three major-party presidential candidates standing have this in common: the state abbreviations after their names–John McCain (AZ), Hillary Clinton (NY), and Barack Obama (IL)–are no more meaningful than the random pairings of letters in a spoonful of alphabet soup. These are the candidates from nowhere. Or in Obama’s case, from everywhere. And this rootlessness has policy consequences.

Senator John McCain is a poster boy for the pathologies of the military brat. Born in the Panama Canal Zone, he attended twenty schools in his nomadic childhood.

“The place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi,” is how he shuts up critics of his carpetbagging, but he is making their point: Senator McCain’s loyalty is not to any particular American place but rather to a bureaucratic institution (the military) and an abstraction (the American Empire).

After marrying his second wife in 1980, McCain alit in her home state of Arizona in 1981 and was elected to Congress in 1982. He was a classic political carpetbagger searching for a winnable congressional seat, but when a voter questioned his lack of roots he shot back:

“Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things.”

An effective response, to be sure, but note the subsurface contempt for those who stay in one place. Not to worry: a President McCain, with his oft-quoted willingness to keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq for “a hundred years,” won’t let deep roots grow under our young people. His Army, always moving, is going to need bodies.

The Democrats are no more connected to particular places than is McCain. Hillary Clinton’s rootlessness became a national joke in her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign to represent New York, a state in which she had never lived. Wearing a Yankees cap was about as far as she went to assert her ersatz New Yorkness.

Barack Obama, lauded as the “world candidate,” was born in Hawaii, a state that is only in the union because of its military significance. Raised also in Indonesia and at various times resident in Los Angeles, New York City, and finally Chicago, Obama is a “cosmopolitan,” which by some lights means a sophisticate but which a character in Henry James’s Portrait of Lady defined as “a little of everything and not much of any. I must say I think patriotism is like charity-it begins at home.”

“Isolationist!” shriek the Thought Police if confronted by a James-like opinion. And in fact Senator Obama has said that “We cannot afford to be a country of isolationists right now.” Then again, cosmopolitans think we can never afford to leave other countries alone and mind our own business. Because their business is our business. Or as Obama says, American security is “inextricably linked to the security of all people.”

Obama’s limitless internationalism is encapsulated in his statement that “When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern.” This is, quite possibly, the most expansive definition ever essayed of the American national interest. It is a license for endless interventions in the affairs of other nations. It is a recipe for blundering into numberless wars-which will be fought, disproportionately, by those God & Guns small-town Americans evidently despised or pitied by Mr. Obama. It is redolent of the biblical assurance that not even a sparrow can fall to the earth unnoticed by God. The congruence of the roles of the deity and U.S. foreign policy in Obama’s mind is not reassuring to those of us who desire peace and a modest role for the U.S. military.

Why does this matter? What’s wrong with electing competent but rootless people to public office? Because just as one cannot love the “human race” before one loves particular human beings, neither can one love “the world” unless he first achieves a deep understanding of his own little piece of that world. America is not, as the neoconservatives like to say, an idea: it is a place, or rather the sum of a thousand and one little, individuated places, each with its own history and accent and stories. A politician who understands this will act in ways that protect and preserve these real places. A rootless politico will babble on about “the homeland”–a creepily totalitarian phrase that, pre-Bush, was not applied to our country.

People lacking strong identifications with specific places-a block, a village, a city, a state, a region-will transfer their loyalties to abstractions. Woodrow Wilson, a displaced Southern minister’s kid, renounced the traditional American practice of neutrality and tossed the First Amendment in the scrap heap in his crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” George W. Bush, the Texan-cum-Yankee prep-school cheerleader, has wasted astronomical sums and thousands of lives in a campaign whose ostensible purpose is to democratize the Middle East and “rid the world of evil.” The costs of such grandiose schemes may be measured in billions of dollars and acres of corpses. In addition, political power is centralized, citizens are uprooted, and the economy undergoes wartime distortions. These are reckoned acceptable prices to pay for the achievement of mighty (if ultimately unachievable) abstractions. But democracy was no safer despite the First World War, and I daresay evil will exist long after U.S. troops come home from Iraq.

People with local attachments, by contrast, will ask the question that never quite gets injected into national debates over war and peace: What are the domestic costs of this crusade? Loving their block, they will not wish to bomb Iraq. Loyal to a neighborhood, they will not send its young men and women across the sea to kill and die for causes wholly unrelated to local life.

Losing sight of small and precious things, a president without roots will have no domestic or sentimental reminder of why foreign crusades, whose first casualties are the nearest and dearest things, should never be waged. But don’t mind me: I’m just an isolationist.

BILL KAUFFMAN’s Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism is being published this week by Henry Holt/Metropolitan.