Two men walk on stage; shake hands and go behind their podiums. The hall darkens. Cameras focus like mechanical eyes for 60 million Americans watching Senators McCain and Obama in the first presidential debate. None of us tune in for the ideas but for the combat. We want blood.
The senators stood in modern business suits but the roles they play are ancient. Each is a combatant in a rhetorical gladiator fight. Each has a side cheering for them as they cast guilt-by-association like nets over each other, as they joust with sound-bites, feint and thrust with sharpened words. The goal is to kill the other man; not his physical being but his symbolic “self”.
As soon as the debate began, PBS host Jim Leher urged them to go at each other. After Obama made a point, Leher directed him, “Say it directly to him.” He did, sarcastically and it got a laugh from the audience. Leher kept trying to aim their voices directly at each other, “I’m just determined to get you all to talk to each other.”
Our ritual is to see men struggle for power but McCain and Obama were cautious warriors. They slid over each other like oiled wrestlers, speaking in arcane detail and abstract policy until McCain, eyes flashing, lowered his voice into the grave, “I had a town hall meeting and a woman said, ‘Senator I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son’s name on it,’ And then she said, “But, Senator McCain…promise me one thing, that you’ll do everything in your power to make sure that my son’s death was not in vain.”
Obama, cool and even said, “I’ve got a bracelet, too.” A sigh from liberals rippled the air. He kept on, “From the mother of Sergeant Ryan David Jopeck, who said make sure another mother is not going through what I’m going through.”
If they couldn’t kill each other they could struggle over the exquisite corpse of those who will die under their command. The soldier’s body was what in Lacanian theory is called an “anchoring point”; it halts the endless slipping between what is said and what is meant by anchoring it to a final meaning. The soldier’s death became a metaphor for McCain’s integrity, in that he will defend the young man’s sacrifice to the cause and if that cause is betrayed it would rob the man’s memory of honor. For Obama his soldier’s death became a metaphor of his quick political reflexes but also of his sympathetic ear turned to the suffering of the people, an unnecessary suffering caused by blind commitment.
It was an obscene situation in which our presidential candidates each had a bracelet bound to the same corpse pulling it in a tug-of-war. In that brief duel, the body was torn apart, each man having his piece. Death has no meaning, no words, noting of its own; it is only an emptiness in which the voices of the living echo ever louder. But what if it did? We see so many movies of the dead telling us truths from beyond. It’s as if we crave the certainty that only someone beyond our daily life of confusion can bring. So what if both soldiers walked on stage? Would the light shining from their wounds expose the lies both men told? Would they ask why they had to die when we all ultimately want to live? Maybe they’d bend the microphones to their mouths and tell us that there is no anchor, that every word we speak is a metaphor for a spiritual reality we sense but can’t endure. Maybe they’d forgive us for killing each other over illusions.
It’s only an imagined scene. Only a vague hopelessness could even allow me to write it. Of course the candidates continued to debate. Words were sharpened again, parried, feint and thrust. Each man trying to kill the other as in the background more men died, adding weight to words none of us know how to speak.