#ThinkpieceThursday – McCain and Obama: Character Consistency in Storytelling

Obama Mccain ETB ScreenwritingThe U.S. election drama has me riveted.  It is an amazing opportunity to see two Character Types play out their roles on the world stage.  Here are two articles that demonstrate how consistently Character Types are viewed.  The same basic qualities are highlighted in nearly every analysis and review of the candidate’s campaign performance.

Here is what the co-author of McCain’s memoirs said about the stories McCain loves and how they connect with his own story:

The John McCain (as he describes himself in) “Faith of My Fathers,” for example, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Mr. McCain later celebrated (this Hemmingway hero) in another book (about himself) with Mr. Salter, “Worth the Fighting For,” which was named for a line of Jordan’s dying thoughts. (Jordan) was “a man who would risk his life but never his honor,” Mr. McCain wrote with Mr. Salter, a model of “how a great man should style himself.”

Each book is heavy with premonitions of mortality. Robert Jordan and John McCain each confront great tests (the temptation to escape a doomed mission for one, the offer of early prison release for the other) in the service of a lost cause (the socialists in the Spanish Civil War, the Americans in Vietnam). And in accepting his fate, each makes peace with his father and grandfather.

Mr. McCain’s admirers, like Mr. Timberg, have often puzzled over what drew him to Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” It is a convoluted psychodrama about a young man with a club foot; he seethes with resentment over his disability and nearly ruins his life in the thrall of a waitress-turned-prostitute who rejects him. But the character’s final realization could fit almost as well near the conclusion of Mr. McCain’s memoir: “It might be that to surrender happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

“That explains it,” Mr. Salter said when he heard the line. “Perfect McCainism.”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/us/politics/13mccain.html?hp

Power of Idealism characters have a sense of doomed destiny.  They reject the offer of ordinary escape (and a happy life) in favor of the valiant, but doomed attempt.  They embrace glorious defeat (or death on the battle field) in order to live out their own scenario of courage and personal honor.

Here’s what a recent article by a conservative New York Times columnist said about Obama:

“(O)ver the past two years, Obama has… shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day. There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious (or I might add the collective unconscious). Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity…

They say we are products of our environments, but Obama, the sojourner (on his quest), seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them. Over the past two years, he has been the subject of nearly unparalleled public worship, but far from getting drunk on it, he has become less grandiloquent as the campaign has gone along.

…It could be that Obama (as a president) will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.

We can each guess how the story ends. But over the past two years, Obama has clearly worn well with voters. Far from a celebrity fad, he is self-contained, self-controlled and maybe even a little dull”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/opinion/17brooks.html?hp

Power of Imagination characters are humble and self-effacing quite naturally.  They seek greatness from others and draw their inspiration and power from the bottom up (rather than display it from the top down like John McCain does).

Obama’s grass roots campaign and masses of small individual donations also displays this Character Type’s bottom up view of things.  The danger is they are always collecting allies and consensus and avoid stepping out decisively or with passion on their own, ahead of the crowd, to really lead.  They can be a bit dull and do seem quite ordinary.  Their leap of faith is to move away from the unity of the crowd and make hard decisions that could be divisive.

John McCain – Three Factors of Character Type

john_mccain ETB ScreenwritingI’ve written extensively on the differences in Character Type between John McCain and Barack Obama.  Both candidates’ response to the recent American financial crisis is tremendously revealing of all aspects of their Character Types.

A Character Type is made up of three key factors:

1. Immediate Tactics: This is how a character reacts to a specific challenge, opportunity or threat.  It is a character’s immediate tactical response or maneuvers to deal with a specific problem or obstacle in the short-term.

2.  Long-term Orientation: This is how the character views the world, sees his or her role in it and is what a character believes is true about life and love.  It is a character’s overarching personal philosophy and view of self.

3.  Strategic Approach: This is how a character goes about leading or getting things done over the long haul.  It is how a character works with others overall. It is how a character takes charge or commands to achieve a larger goal.  Strategy deals with the art of of obtaining a grand overarching objective.

Each of these key factors is motivated by the fight, flight or embrace/submit response.  These are the three possible biological reactions to anything.  A character can confront something (fight).  He or she can withdraw from something (flight).  Or a character can embrace or submit to something.

Today let’s look at John McCain.  He is a classic Power of Idealism character.

1. Immediate Tactics: Power of Idealism characters embrace an opportunity, challenge or threat as a personal test of courage. They see difficulty or opportunity as an individual call of destiny. When presented with a challenge or threat, their first response is to move toward it as a mission or personal call to greatness.

These characters believe their immediate tactic must be a grand gesture or bold move. They want to display individual heroism or do something uniquely dramatic. They believe their extraordinary actions will somehow inspire others to follow their lead.

When confronted with a challenge, opportunity or threat, John McCain opts for a big “game-changing” response. When financial crisis seemed inevitable, McCain boldly announced he was suspending his campaign. He parachuted into the middle of the crisis in Washington, calling for a Presidential level meeting of the candidates and Congressional leaders. He made a dire and dramatic pronouncement that “the country could be plunged into another Depression by Monday.” He then claimed victory for himself as the leader of his party before the actual vote.

2. Long-term Orientation: Power of Idealism characters view life through a very idiosyncratic lens. They withdraw from the crowd, popular opinion or conventional wisdom to protect or promote their own individuality and special distinctiveness. Their philosophy is to follow their own personal star or individual sense of destiny regardless of the cost.

Noteworthiness, individuality or personal eccentricity is what these characters value most highly in themselves and others. John McCain proudly calls himself a maverick or an outsider. He is especially proud of his special or unique status as a Viet Nam POW.

These characters are lone wolf heroes. If they must go down in flames to prove their heroism so be it. McCain has often said: “I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war (in Iraq).” He sees his position on an unpopular war as a heroic offer of personal sacrifice for the nation.

McCain most often uses the word “I” in his campaign speeches. “I would fire the SEC chairman.” “I am suspending my campaign.” “I will follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell.” He sees leadership in terms of a singular heroic action leading the charge.

These characters believe that passion is everything. At their worst, Power of Idealism characters suffer from delusions of grandeur. They can be self-destructive and/or self-harming. In their Dark Side they are narcissistic, melancholy, self-pitying, cynical and embittered.

3. Strategic Approach: A Power of Idealism character’s overall method of working with others toward a goal is to step back or withdraw for personal reasons. These characters delay taking action until they are certain how they feel about something. They must feel sufficiently inspired, encouraged or affirmed in order to act or move forward.

When impassioned or inspired, these characters lead best in short bursts of intense activity or creativity. They engage others by a personal appeal to valor and courage or a romantic call for patriotic action. But they are not overly concerned about the consequences of their bold gesture.

They withdraw from the tedious small tasks involved in the daily execution of a command. These character’s greatest liability as a leader is that they often lack the patience to see through the practical application of their dramatic appeal. They don’t always adequately follow-up. They are often unprepared (or not inspired) to make the niggling, routine or ordinary small sacrifices long-term leadership requires.

Power of Idealism characters are rarely interested in sticking around for the clean-up after their big moment is over. They would rather withdraw into the glorious memory of the grand occasion or glorious battle. These characters need to act in the normal and ordinary course of things. They need to learn that everything doesn’t have to be individually suited to their personal sense of destiny or their passionate individual temperament.

John McCain took a long time to recognize the financial crisis. When he felt a call to action was necessary, he took the problem on personally, made a grand gesture and then said very little in the Presidential level meeting he so urgently called. His bold interjection of personal Presidential politics actually derailed an early accord that was building in Congress.Then he withdrew and left it to others to complete the task.

McCain’s actions during the crisis seem erratic because the dynamic opposites of his Immediate Tactics (embrace) and his Strategic Approach (withdraw) pull him in two different directions. He has been criticized for a lot of “sound and fury” that is followed by very little of the detail-oriented and painstaking leadership that solving a complex problem requires. He has admitted that the details of economic policy are not his strong suit. All of this has produced a whipsaw effect that makes him seem unstable.

Tomorrow I will look at the dynamic opposites in Power of Imagination Barack Obama’s Immediate Tactics and Strategic Approach. Interestingly, Obama’s dynamics are exactly the same: Immediate Tactic (embrace) and Strategic Approach (withdraw). This combination manifests itself very differently because a Power of Imagination character’s overarching personal philosophy and view of self is poles apart from that of the Power of Idealism character.

Long-term Orientation is the prism through which a character sees everything. The same tactics and approach can create totally dissimilar strengths and weaknesses, problems and opportunities because the two characters view the world so differently.

John McCain – Power of Idealism

john_mccain ETBScreenwritingIn watching the grand drama of the American election play out, it’s interesting to look at the candidates’ Character Type.  John McCain is a classic Power of Idealism character.

John McCain’s campaign slogan during the primaries was: “Never Surrender.”

The words McCain and others use in describing him and his campaign are:  courageous, hero, honor, valor and maverick.  When he is criticized his opponents often use words like:  hot-tempered, cranky, loose cannon, temperamental and stubborn. These are the keywords in describing or deriding a Power of Idealism character.

Power of Idealism characters often play the role of the rebel, the outsider, the iconoclast or the maverick.  That has always been McCain’s role in the Republican party. He has prided himself (whether true or not) on his independence, autonomy and straight talk.

His statement on his current campaign his website is:  “I am running for President of the United States because I believe in the greatness of this nation as a beacon of goodwill throughout the world.”

These characters often look to the greatness of a more glorious and noble past. Their stories often take place at the end of an era.  McCain harks back to what he sees as a nobler era of American world dominance.

He views patriotism in terms of traditions and symbols.  That’s what the whole flag pin controversy is about.  How can you respect flag and country unless you display it proudly?

Barack Obama is a Power of Imagination character and sees his role, the country and patriotism very differently. I did a detailed analysis of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in a previous newsletter.