Let’s Leave Jesus Out of It

Stanley Fish brings up Milton to explain campaign strategy

Today’s Bob Herbert column in The New York Times compares McCain to an Al Jolson aficionado and Obama to the Beatles. Stanley Fish, in his online NYT column, compares McCain to Satan and Obama to… wait for it… Jesus.

Both aim to show how the candidates’ respective approaches have gotten them to where they are—Obama with a solid lead and McCain, well, flailing. It’s a pair of how did they play the game retrospective analyses. Herbert, unsurprisingly, does this earnestly, while Fish, unsurprisingly, has a bit more cheek.

But while any reader appreciates the occasional analogy (check out the reader comments for the Fish piece), is it too much to ask columnists to refrain from sizing up the two candidates and playing the Who Beat Or Superseded Whom game, using, well, stand-ins? Surely, we can talk about McCain and Obama in the final days before the election without resorting to a game of match-up.

In the competition to win voters’ hearts, Herbert thinks, McCain fumbled the ball with dirty politics:

Senator McCain has diminished his chances of winning the presidency in many ways, the most important of which was his failure to grasp the most significant new trend in American politics.

With the country facing enormous problems (even before the meltdown of the credit and financial markets in recent months), the voters wanted more substance from their candidates. They wanted a greater sense of maturity and a more civil approach to campaigning. They were tired of the politics of personal destruction and the playbook that counseled “attack, attack, attack”… John McCain didn’t get it. He seemed as baffled by the new politics as an Al Jolson aficionado trying to make sense of the Beatles.

There’s nothing new here; in that sense, it’s rather like Obama’s “closing argument” yesterday. Herbert keeps things simple, if not simplistic, distilling the game down to “attack politics” vs. “new politics” and comparing an old fogey to, well, an old fogey.

Fish, though, went out of his way to pull a comparison out of his deep pockets that blows Herbert’s mild Jolson-Beatles attempt clear out of the water. Imagine what would’ve happened had this analogy cropped up earlier in the campaign:

I find an answer in a most unlikely place, John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e., maverick) loses it, crying in exasperation, “What dost thou in this world?”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that McCain is the devil or that Obama is the Messiah (although some of his supporters think of him that way), just that the rhetorical strategies the two literary figures employ match up with the strategies employed by the two candidates. What Satan wants to do is draw Jesus out, provoke him to an unwisely exasperated response, get him to claim too much for his own powers. What Jesus does is reply with an equanimity conveyed by the adjectives and adverbs that preface his words: “unaltered,” “temperately,” “patiently,” “calmly,” “unmoved,” “sagely,” “in brief.”

Stating that Obama decided “to play another game, one we haven’t seen for awhile,” Fish calls it like he sees it: “the name of this game is straightforward campaigning, or rather straightforward non-campaigning.” As a backdrop to Obama’s smooth game, he cites the flustered McCain camp—going red in the face trying to explain away Palin-speak, or jumping from the un-American charge to the socialism charge to the “measuring the drapes” charge. It’s in searching for an apt comparison that he alights on Milton.

It’s not an entirely unjust point to make. McCain has done lots of dancing, prodding and poking around Obama, and the latter has remained remarkably calm in the face of it all. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to remain temperate and in about the same place regardless of the irrational taunts thrown his way, and “so far,” Fish writes, “the combination of discipline and care — care not to get out too far in front of anything — along with a boatload of money is working just fine.” In that sense, Fish’s comparison is instructive—though this main point, about the virtues of passive non-campaigning as practiced by the Obama camp, almost gets lost in the Jesus-Satan two-step.

Still, drawing on such analogies is kind of like taking a short cut—the election results aren’t yet in, but, man, do people want to talk about who’s done it right, and who will win as a result. Barring talking about an Obama presidency, stand-ins are an easy way to discuss the dynamics of the seemingly inevitable big payoff. And how unfortunate for McCain that the comparison touts such a preordained result. Fish has McCain’s stand-in, Satan, increasingly getting desperate: “he conjures up rain and wind storms… tempts [Jesus] with the riches of poetry and philosophy…and finally, having run out of schemes and scares and ‘swollen with rage,’ he resorts to physical violence.” While Satan ultimately fails, Jesus, in a deus ex machina moment, rises up to heaven. Is that poetic—or columnists’—justice?

The fallacy of this comparison is that the “right” approach doesn’t always lead to the “right” result in elections, and painting what amounts to a moral portrait of a campaign run right (or wrong) is premature. This is especially true because Obama’s lead is strong—the more predictable the outcome, the more restraint is in order. And while Herbert’s Jolson-Beatles analogy is a one-line changing of the eras reference without any moral bearing, Fish’s isn’t. It’s one thing to criticize the way a campaign’s been run. It’s another to use a frame of comparison that is by nature heavily weighted in shades of good and bad. Fish is careful to say he is likening strategies, not personas. But everyone knows the outcome of that story, and that makes the comparison also rather presumptuous.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.