"Well, let's assume McCain is the Republican candidate. His story is going to be the story of Daniel Boone - the guy who was taken captive by Indians or, in his case, the North Vietnamese, and withstood torture and came back. That's the drama that's going to be trotted out. Already they're talking about 'McCain the Warrior'. And then on the Democratic side, whoever the candidate is they'll be attacked because they don't fit into that rescue formula. Clinton will either be accused of being not manly enough to withstand the terrorist threat, or accused of being too cold and calculating to be a woman. Or both. And Obama will be this scrawny guy who doesn't seem macho enough to stand up to the enemy.”
Susan Faludi describes the archetype at work as “the rescue narrative”. She is talking about The Terror Dream, her new book on the American media reportage of 9/11 and its aftermath. She argues that American men felt that their masculinity was under attack and as a result, new, all-male heroes had to be found. Women were forced into the background.
America's media fell back in love with the manly man - an old-fashioned hero strong enough to defend his nation and rescue his womenfolk.
If he did not exist, he would have to be invented. So firemen had to be superheroes, widows had to be helpless, unmarried women had to be frantic to wed and working mums had to want to stay at home. Crucially, strong men had to protect weak women - a desire vividly dramatised by the Rambo-style rescue in Iraq of Private Jessica Lynch, who found herself reconfigured by the media from professional soldier to helpless damsel.
Faludi traces this "rescue narrative" right back to the original shame of America's frontiersmen, whose womenfolk were frequently kidnapped by Indians - and, more shaming still, did not always want to be rescued. "The 'unimaginable' assault on our home soil was, in fact, anything but unimaginable," she writes. "The anxieties it awakened reside deep in our cultural memory. And the myth we deployed to keep those anxieties buried is one we've been constructing for more than 300 years."
I would add the myth that McCain has created of a being an “American maverick”. This appeals to an archetypal hero that can be found throughout the military and cultural history of the US. General Douglas MacArthur is a leading example.
Also, when discussing the America media’s propensity to muddle up cultural fiction with reality, Susan Faludi makes another interesting observation.
"I think," she says bluntly, "it combines with a number of prevailing, longstanding dynamics in the American mindset. You know - the desire to be seen as innocent, that you can just hit the restart button. That tomorrow's a new day, one person can make a difference - all these apolitical, and even anti-political, or certainly anti-historical ways of looking at the world. That makes us more susceptible to Cinderella stories, and want to believe them. Americans have always wanted to believe in some dreamy notion that has nothing to do with the facts that are right before them. Americans are just so wedded to saying OK, let's just turn the page and everything's going to be fine."