THE POLITICAL storyteller envies the political reality of 2008. Compared with the gray mediocrities usually offered up by the Republican and Democratic parties for the presidency, John McCain and Barack Obama are true characters. The grizzled war hero who's been a fixture on the political landscape for a generation, the brilliant young street-organizer who comes out of nowhere to electrify the country -- these are archetypes that could populate the likes of "The Best Man," "Advise and Consent," "The Manchurian Candidate." In fact, in McCain's first race for the White House eight years ago, supporters of his opponent, George W. Bush, even suggested that he was a Hanoi Candidate, brainwashed during his years as a Vietnam prisoner of war.
Assuming a reader can muster up some dispassion, McCain's 1999 memoir, "Faith of My Fathers" (HarperPerennial: 350 pp., $14 paper) -- co-written, like all his books, with Mark Salter -- and Obama's 1995 book "Dreams From My Father" (Three Rivers Press: 458 pp., $14.95 paper) elicit admiration for both men, and when was the last election that was true?
An electoral contest invites contrasts, so most conspicuous is what McCain and Obama have in common. Both are touched, in different ways, by the shadows of the fathers who lend themselves to the memoirs' similarly paternal titles; strikingly, both begin with a shattering paternal death. Having survived ferocious combat in the Pacific, McCain's grandfather died within hours of returning home from World War II. Since McCain was about to turn 9, one can't help thinking such a monumental demise, so poetically timed, informed a boy's romantic vision of the world. He is haunted not only by his father but by the way the father was haunted by his own father: "I hesitate to say my father was insecure," McCain writes, before going on to say just that. "[His] ambition to meet the standard of his famous father might have collided with his appreciation for the implausibility of the accomplishment." In a family of admirals, the haunting of sons by fathers is passed down the chain of command like an order to commence firing.
The father who haunted Barry Obama, as the Democratic nominee once called himself, did so in absentia, having left the family when his son was 2. As "Dreams From My Father" opens, a 21-year-old Obama gets a phone call from Kenya telling him that his father has died, and his odyssey to learn about his heritage becomes bound up in his own confusion over racial identity. Obama might be the Joe Christmas of American politics, but unlike the central figure of William Faulkner's "Light in August," driven mad because he doesn't know if he's black or white, Obama's journey led to revelation. "Theirs," he writes of his ancestors, "were the faces of American Gothic" -- not just African but Cherokee and "the WASP bloodline's poorer cousins," Scottish and English going back to the Civil War (and both sides of that war). Just as he was "too young to realize," Obama concludes, "that I was supposed to have a live-in father . . . I was too young to know that I needed a race."
Their common ground
For both Obama and McCain, fathers shrouded in myth and memory came to embody failures of connection, of fulfilling expectations. Once out of their fathers' shadows, Obama and McCain, who each partied hearty early on, decided life was more: "That was the problem with booze and drugs," writes Obama. "They couldn't stop that ticking sound, the sound of certain emptiness." As revealed by their writing, both men are not only uncommonly idealistic but, as politicians go, uncommonly reflective -- two things that don't necessarily go hand in hand. As proved by the current president, who has ideals but believes reflection is for sissies, idealism without reflection is zealotry just as reflection without ideals is solipsism. "Dreams From My Father" and "Faith of My Fathers" suggest that as president neither Obama, fundamentally but not dogmatically liberal, nor McCain, fundamentally but not dogmatically conservative, is likely to be particularly ideological, unless a siege mentality born of the current campaign takes hold.
Sooner or later the similarities between the men give way to vast differences as personal as they are political. Not only the memoirs but also the manifestoes -- Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" (Three Rivers Press: 376 pp., $14.95 paper), McCain's "Worth the Fighting For" (Random House: 404 pp., $14.95 paper) and "Hard Call" (Twelve: 456 pp., $15.99 paper), as well as "Character Is Destiny" (Random House: 312 pp., $15.95 paper), a collection of short pieces about his personal pantheon, from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela to (take note, social conservatives) Charles Darwin -- capture the sensibilities of their authors.