In politics these days it’s not enough to say you stand for something, you have to show that you live it. Voters have become cynical of clever wordsmiths — they want some evidence. Enter the backstory, a nicely crafted biography designed to get you to connect with the candidate.
A backstory can take the form of a slick TV advertisement like the one the ALP put out at the start of 2007 with Kevin Rudd in the idyllic rural landscape where he grew up. The ALP hammered the ‘Kevin is a Queenslander’ line to great effect in the campaign. An ad with “Kevin is a career diplomat” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Or it can be a biographical nugget like the fact that new NSW Premier Nathan Rees once worked as a garbo, while he was majoring in English literature. In politics, garbage collection trumps Shakespeare. Or, the fact that Kevin Rudd cleaned Laurie Oakes’ house. Knowing that they did these low-status jobs and have been somehow shaped by the experience makes us feel that they might be more in-touch with our workaday world.
Nathan Rees, the knockabout bloke and former greenkeeper, is into straight talk, also a trademark of US presidential candidate, John McCain, who travelled from his home state of Arizona in a bus called the “Straight Talk Express”. There’s an idea for the boys in Sussex Street.
The USA presidential race is where you can see the backstory taken to incredible lengths. So much so, that is the contest.
Americans have always loved the log cabin to White House routine, even though the place has long been ruled by a small plutocracy of super-rich families. Just as we like to think of Kevin, Wayne and Nathan as hard-working, plain-speaking blokes from Queensland or Western Sydney.
Bill Clinton made much of his origins in Hope, Arkansas. The patrician Bushes, a well-connected north-eastern family on the other hand, have remade themselves as straight-forward down-home Texas ranchers. Humble origins are invaluable.
Senator McCain milks his “hero” status for all its worth. The McCain camp are positioning his war service and refusal to deal with Hanoi as his principal qualification for the presidency and have incorporated it in the slogan; “Country First”.
Senator Obama is no more self-effacing. At the Democrat convention four years ago, when he made the speech that launched his meteoric national career, he said that his story was America’s story. No less.
McCain’s running mate Governor Palin seems to have been chosen largely for her incredible ‘hockey mom’ backstory. Not only is she pro-life but just a few months ago she chose to give birth to a baby with Down syndrome. The religious right in America has been energised by this more than by anything else. A candidate that not only espouses “a culture of life” but walks the walk as well and talks from the podium of this beautiful gift from God. So far, this backstory has helped take McCain from 5 points down in national polling to a few points ahead.
The problem with all these stories is their cartoonish character. They hit the right emotional buttons but they don’t really give us any great insight into those who seek to lead us.