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Race for president builds characters

September 28, 2008|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals."

Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an egghead. He's the professor -- but one who can sink the shot from beyond the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. One thing is clear: He is not a man of the ranch. Personifying a welter of archetypes, he thrills some, confounds others and jams circuits. Some people ask, "Who is this guy?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 17, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 29 Editorial pages Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidents: An Op-Ed article Sept. 28 said President Theodore Roosevelt ranched in South Dakota. It was North Dakota.

So that's the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God's country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant's child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven't yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure -- the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.

The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.

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