The Incredible Shrinking Candidate

by Derrick G. Jeter

E. L. Doctorow is not a conservative. But, allowing for some hyperbole, his comment about the election of a United States President are worth pondering. This is especially salient as the 2008 election looms large before us. Doctorow wrote, “The President we get is the country we get. With each elected President the nation is conformed spiritually.”1


The truth of Doctorow’s observation was painted in stark relief on Saturday, August 16, 2008, when Pastor Rick Warren hosted the Saddleback Civic Forum on the Presidency. Inviting Senators Barack Obama and John McCain to a two hour Q&A, Warren blazed a new trail in civil dialogue when it comes to political rhetoric. Giving each man an hour to answer exactly the same questions, while the other was tucked away backstage somewhere, voters were able to see the obvious contrasts between the two presidential candidates—contrasts in style and substance.


Both men articulated their faith in Jesus Christ. A faith that is vital to the personal lives of Obama and McCain, as they said. But from here both took decidedly different paths.


McCain was decisive and declarative. Playing down stories of his torture at the hands of the Vietcong—“it was very uncomfortable” when they tied his arms behind his back and his head between his legs—McCain appeared humble and grateful. Two qualities becoming for anyone, including a president. McCain was visionary and was visibly moved when speaking of America and the good men and women who defend her today.


On the question of abortion McCain unequivocally declared that life, and therefore human rights and Constitutional rights, begin at conception. On the question of evil he affirmed that evil exists and it must be defeated. For McCain, evil is embodied in Islamists who seek the destruction of America and Americans.


Obama, on the other hand, was nuanced. He was, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “postmodern.” He was cerebral; intellectual in the sort of way a professor is when discussing a theory he has never lived in real life. His language and delivery was, um . . . how should we say it . . . ah . . . halting . . . um, ethereal.


Is this what we want in a president, wraithlike in the face of critical question such as abortion, confronting evil in the world, and economic difficulties? This may be fine for a philosopher or professor who—by the way, Obama reminded us he was once—lives within the airy world of academia. But the White House is not an ivory tower.


When asked about abortion Obama hemmed and hawed and finally said that whether speaking theologically or scientifically we couldn’t say specifically when a baby becomes a person. Untrue. But the unreal was about to turn surreal. He added that such decisions were “above my pay grade.” Not only a silly answer to a serious question, but a cowardly response to a direct one bearing on actual life and death.


Concerning evil, Obama believes it exists, in Darfur for example. Congratulations—evil does exists and Darfur is an excellent illustration. He should have left well enough alone with that answer because in the next breath he declared that evil lurks on our streets. I don’t disagree that evil takes place everyday on American streets. But his juxtaposition of Darfur and American streets is hardly morally equivalent. And though he thinks we should confront evil, we should be humble in our approach because sometimes the consequences of our actions results in or perpetuates evil.


If only the presidency were a think tank and not a pressure cooker then perhaps Barack Obama would be our man. But I wonder what kind of spirit America would conform to if Obama had to face down a resurgent and belligerent Russia, or a nuclear Iran, or another attack on our shores, or a deep recession, or an energy crisis? I suppose we would reflect the spirit of a nuanced, postmodern professor and analyze ever side of an issue while the country burns around us. These are serious time—they always are—calling for serious people to lead. Silliness just isn’t becoming for a United States President. And unfortunately for Obama he seems to suffer, as Michael Gerson put it, from being “one of those rare political figures who seems to grow smaller the closer we approach him.”2


Maybe Obama is right about one thing: the presidency is above his pay grade, and too big for his shoes.


1. E. L. Doctorow, “The White Whale,” The Nation (July 14, 2008), (accessed August 18, 2008).


2. Michael Gerson, “McCain’s New Hope: The Candidate Shines at Saddleback,” Monday, August 18, 2008, (accessed August 18, 2008).