Although I was still an unthinking Democrat back in 2000, and I cast my vote for Gore without blinking an eye, I was sufficiently objective to concede one fact: Bush seemed like the much nicer guy. Gore might hold forth on erudite subjects at a cocktail party, but Bush was the guy you’d want to have in your neighborhood: friendly, helpful, easy-going, and not self-important. You might respect Gore’s intellect for an hour or two at a time (you see, I thought he actually knew stuff in those days), but over the long haul Bush would be your man.
An AP story about Obama’s and McCain’s respective offices leaves precisely the same impression of this year’s batch of Democratic and Republican candidates: One is a mensch, the other a product. Obama’s office is immaculate and beautiful. It is also devoid of substance, showy, self-involved and cold:
The decor is carefully choreographed. When an assistant shifted the location of one painting while Obama was away, the senator had it moved back.
“He’s tidy. It stays tidy,” Tate-Gilmore said.
Obama has a “wall of heroes” containing historic photos of those the senator admires. Abe Lincoln is there, as well as Gandhi with his spinning wheel, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy. The arrangement includes a framed original program from the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. There also is a framed copy of the Life magazine cover from 1965 showing civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala. It is signed by John Lewis, a protester who was bludgeoned at Selma and now is a member of Congress.
Another of Obama’s office walls displays a more personal collection of photos taken by his former personal assistant, David Katz, an amateur photographer. The photos, hung five tiers high, show Obama in various political settings, such as the Democratic National Convention and a Rainbow PUSH event, but also in more intimate encounters with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, and at home in Chicago.
Obama’s office is as notable for what’s missing as for what’s there.
The credenza behind his desk contains a handful of file folders in one drawer, but otherwise is completely empty.
McCain’s office on the other hand is functional, comfortable, and cluttered with stuff that speaks volumes about his values, his personality and his intelligence:
Family photos proliferate in haphazard abundance. Gifts from foreign leaders -an antique sword, an 18th century muzzleloader, a knife and sheath – are propped here and there, booty from overseas trips. Random stuffed animals are part of the scene, a dancing hamster in nautical attire among them. McCain, an avid reader, has books stacked seven- or eight-high along the length of a window sill. They include “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his favorite.
The desktop is a repository for this and that: a Barry Goldwater bobblehead, a stuffed Teddy Roosevelt, foam dice, a mug full of bird feathers, a stuffed green witch with “Army” written on her hat, a bracelet bearing the name of a soldier killed in Iraq, various patches, rocks, coins, pins. A note scrawled by a young constituent reads, “Please call us or We’ll call you.” The desk itself oozes history: It once belonged to Goldwater, the Arizona senator much admired by McCain.
Many of the items in the office are trinkets that friends and visitors have handed the Republican senator.
“Some of them he finds really cute and he keeps them – and they stay, and stay and stay,” said Mark Buse, the senator’s chief of staff.
Could there one day be a dancing hamster and a Goldwater bobblehead in the Oval Office?
McCain, in an interview, laughed and told the AP: “There should be.” He added that he’d seen a McCain bobblehead recently. “Maybe we’d have to have that,” he said. “You’ve got to have a little humor.”
It’s also easy to miss a number of other items whose historical significance is belied by their unpretentious display.
In one corner, in a simple black frame, hangs a three-page telegram from 1968 that recounts McCain’s refusal to accept early release from detention as a Vietnam prisoner of war. The once-classified cable from Averell Harriman, then the chief U.S. negotiator to the Paris Peace Talks, tells about a discussion he had with the top negotiator for the North Vietnamese. It states: “At tea break Le Duc Tho mentioned that DRV had intended to release Admiral McCain’s son as one of the three pilots freed recently, but he had refused.”
On a nearby table sits a fist-sized chunk of reddish rock mounted on a base with the inscription “Hoa Lo – Hanoi Hilton.” It’s another small but powerful reminder of McCain’s five and a half years as a POW. In another corner, among family pictures, is a small framed photo showing the statue of McCain that the Vietnamese government erected in Hanoi to mark the spot where he was hauled out of a lake after he was shot down.
For all of the randomness, the office contents seem to fit together, with one jarring exception. There is only one glad-handing political photo in the office, and it is of McCain posing with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and Falwell’s wife, Macel, in 2006. The inscription to McCain from televangelist Falwell reads: “You are a great American, a national treasure and I am glad to say my good friend.” That would be the same Falwell to whom McCain referred as an “agent of intolerance” during his first presidential run in 2000. They reconciled.
If Obama’s office speaks the truth about the man, he is truly the post-modern candidate: all style and almost no substance. McCain is everyman — smart, loyal, deeply connected to people, and honorable.
What was also interesting about this article was that I got the feeling that the reporter, Nancy Benac, although she writes for AP, which routinely churns out articles hostile to conservatives, was charmed by, and admired, McCain and was put off by Obama’s chill self-involvement. Whether this was her feeling going into the story, or whether seeing the external signs of the internal men affected her viewpoint is anybody’s guess. As for me, I’d admire Obama’s office (“Isn’t it nice and neat?”), but I’d want to spend time in McCain’s.
Hat tip: The Anchoress
UPDATE: Jim Miller on Politics also caught that the AP story describes more than just decor. As is often the case for me when I see someone else’s comments on an article, it casts things in a new light. Reading Jim’s thoughts on Obama, a rather old-fashioned word popped into my mind. Obama, in the old days, would have been an aesthete. It’s straightforward definition means someone unusually sensitive to beauty, but Obama, in my mind, falls into the other category, the word’s pejorative use: “One whose pursuit and admiration of beauty is regarded as excessive or affected.” “a person who affects great love of art, music, poetry, etc., and indifference to practical matters.” Obama is Oscar Wilde without the wit, brilliance, insight or charm.