In the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential election I noticed a journalistic shorthand for humanizing candidates: s/he had a “great story.” Once a great story would be the sort of allegorical tale told in a stump speech or as a party turn. I was lucky enough to witness Bob Carr, then Premier of New South Wales, deliver his great story, a long humorous account of Warren Harding, the twenty-ninth President of the USA. Carr, sometimes described as a US History buff, had probably honed this story in many tellings since his days as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. It had some of the hallmarks of Mark Twain, but as I remember it, and my memory may be a tad affected by the wines served from the NSW Parliamentary Dining Room’s cellar that night, it owed much in cadence to Henry Lawson’s “Loaded Dog.” But this sort of story is not what a great story has come to mean. Rather it is the story proffered by person X, say a Vice Presidential candidate (you choose), on how they came to be here at just this moment ready and willing to serve.
Writing in the New York Review of Books Joan Didion brought in sharp focus that “the story” has shaped up as the new litmus test of worthiness. “The story” has become a new form of bloviation. Rather than talk about any substance political reporting gets caught up in “the story” often seen as an attempt to humanize the candidate, but in many ways meant to distract from issues, or provide a quick and easily understood knowledge of the candidate’s character. That is the candidate’s purported character becomes the issue rather than say an economic crisis or a failure in basic geography.
A week after the election a writer in The Chronicle of Higher Education took issue with another form of “the story.” For Jim Courter, academics who flout their prior history as factory workers and the like are engaging in “disingenuous” affectations. It is the urge to share the story that annoys Courter, not the activity itself, and he hastens to note that he too engaged in some lowdown pursuits.
The urge to tell stories though is something very human. Even Courter at heart wants to tell us his story; indeed his piece to me reads mostly like an excuse to boast of a prior history as a factory worker, hitch hiking on old Route 66, and having had a great blues collection and giving it away to someone more knowledgeable of the form and so more deserving of the collection. The desire to understand or make friends is also human as is the attraction to power, or at least to insider knowledge. It seems many, if not most of us, crave to know about others, particularly the secrets. Biographers have been making a nice living out of that desire. Our taste for biography runs to failure and excess in the form of rich gossip. Forty years ago David Frost could joke on The Frost Report about an 18 year old writing his biography. In the twenty-first century we feed ourselves on stories of popettes like Jamie Lynn Spears, not yet 18, but whose basic story is known across the world, or at least the world wide web. It’s not such a great story so far. But alongside stories of the misguided, the irresolute, and the craven we also like stories of uplift.
But do stories let us truly understand someone. The characters that stride the American political stage at the moment all seem to have great stories. Many of these involve a triumph over adversity in some form or another. Or a defining moment in which after reflection the person set forth on a more noble path in life. Perhaps these stories are useful, but more often than not the linear narrative takes on a whiggish hue, and the defining moment and its subsequent resolution touted as marks of character, in the other sense, the presence of an ethical core or strength that we all can (and should?) admire. Most of the stories are précises and offer very little other than soundbites. Historians understand that for a story to do something more than say a chronology, it must explain and not just narrate. The full silliness of “the story” as a line of thought, or press reportage, became clear for me on Friday when John Meacham from Newsweek suggested on MSNBC that Hilary Clinton has a “remarkable story.” Gee do you think? (See here at about the six minute mark: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/#27725668) Jim Courter has a great story too, but does that qualify him for high office?