The Power of Narrative

Sometimes candidate bios are too good for our own good

On Wednesday, The New York Times gave us another installment in “The Long Run,” its series of biographical profiles of the presidential candidates. This chapter focused on Barack Obama’s time as a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s law school. And what did we learn?

That Obama was thoughtful and evenhanded. That he avoided taking positions on contentious issues. That he inspired the young. That some saw him as arrogant and presumptuous. That he was politically ambitious. That he was very smart.

Those are the very traits that have driven the narrative used by pundits, allies, and opponents to define and frame Obama from the earliest days of his campaign. Everything I needed to know about Obama, I learned in law school.

Or take another recent “Long Run” profile of McCain, which showed his years as the Naval attaché to the Senate. Turns out McCain was a bit of a joker. A bit of a womanizer. He worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle. When he thought his bosses wrong, he thumbed his nose at them. Policy details weren’t his strong suit. Sound familiar?

Put aside their shopworn qualities. Are theses narratives even true? After reading a piece like Wednesday’s on Obama, you’d certainly come away thinking that they are. Look! All the details supporting the narrative are right here.

Most reporters mean it when they say that they go into stories with an open mind. But at the same time, a lot of decisions are made before the first phone call. Like, for example, to whom that first phone call is going to be. And what questions will be asked.

So, hypothetically, if you are a reporter assigned to do a piece on Obama’s teaching years, what might you ask? Questions that speak to the questions of the day: Was he talking about his political career with his colleagues? What opinions did he express on contentious issues in lectures?

And if you were a former student or colleague, called up by a reporter, what sort of information would you offer? Maybe a we-saw-it-first boast about his intellect, or his charisma. Or, if Obama wasn’t your cup of tea as a colleague or candidate, a dig or two.

It’s a sort of self-fulfilling cycle, where the existing narrative guides new stories about the subject and his life, which themselves reinforce the existing narrative. There’s an inbred consistency. We know about the press’s love for consistency on policy matters—changes of position are easily fact-checked, and don’t require journalists to make any judgments on the relative pros and cons of policy. But this consistency is rooted in another journalistic axiom—the revealing anecdote. Somewhere in a candidate’s past is an event or moment that betrays something deep about his or her character, or, even better, is at the root of his or her character. And if character is unerring, then the narrative that’s meant to reveal it is on a rather short leash, too.

Obviously, there’s a thin line between developing a narrative and mythmaking, the latter of which the candidates are enormously invested in. But so are voters. Articles like these Long Run pieces reconfirm the idea that a certain kind of someone—someone whose earlier years are so worthy of dissection in chaptered biography—is deserving of the presidency. After all, what do we usually remember about our gloried presidents? A fog of feelings about what their persona in office tells us about ourselves and our nation at that time. Sure, a rock outcropping of actual achievement—a war, a major piece of legislation—will show through here and there. But even so, that’s usually only if it supports the more emotion-driven narrative. Reagan will always be better remembered for cold war bellicosity and attacks on domestic spending than for his concurrent dedication to nuclear arms reduction and expansion of the federal bureaucracy. But all those things happened.

Narratives have power for clear and simple reasons. From the campfire to the Cineplex, humans are drawn to good stories. Not only do they help us remember information, they help us sort and order information.

And today, more information is available than ever. Think of the relative ease of tracking down a group of Obama’s former law school students in an age of Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And think of the relative ease of disseminating what they have to say, tidbit by tidbit. The narrative serves both the journalist and the voter, by the same process—sorting unwieldy facts into something memorable, understandable, and hopefully illuminating.

But there’s a difference between interesting and illuminating. Rarely is it asked what, besides a false sense of personal familiarity, is actually imparted from these stories. And these narratives can be obscuring, not only for the space and attention they draw, but for the way they subsume information that doesn’t fit or isn’t familiar. We hear a lot about Obama’s mention of arugula, and little about McCain’s $520 shoes. We know about Obama’s days as a community organizer, but little about McCain’s pre-Senate stint as a U.S. Representative from Arizona.

Without stories, we couldn’t much make sense of the world. The challenge to the non-fiction storyteller, and to the audience, is to test the ready tales against as much nuance and evidence that doesn’t fit the ready tale as possible. It’s an imperfect process, but an important one.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.