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Death Defying

Heroism's grip on the political subconscious.

'This election," said John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, on the second day of the Republican convention, "is not about issues." And he meant it. The convention that Davis helped assemble devoted strikingly little time to policy. Instead, the focus was on McCain's biography. Fred Thompson set the tone early in the convention, using his address to recount McCain's life story, especially his stint as a prisoner of war. In state delegation meetings during the week, the campaign enlisted the candidate's fellow POWs to tell delegates of his experiences in Vietnam. During McCain's acceptance speech--which also reflected on his years in captivity--delegates waved signs reading REAL AMERICAN HERO. McCain, the convention made clear, was not running for president based on foreign policy or economics--or ideology of any sort at all. He was running on heroism.

Democrats have tended to dismiss this strategy as a product of desperation--and, in some ways, it is. In a year when the issues dramatically favored his opponent, McCain had to find another organizing principle for his candidacy. But just because a strategy is born of desperation does not mean it is bound to fail. Even in the midst of war and economic distress, American political campaigns have often hinged on character as much as issues. And, throughout U.S. history, voters have frequently looked for heroes in their presidential candidates. McCain, moreover, isn't just any old hero. His life story--which includes a narrow escape from death, followed by a resurrection story of sorts--resonates with Americans' deepest fears and hopes about their own mortality. The psychology of heroism, it turns out, is capable of exerting a powerful pull on American voters. It may help explain why McCain outlasted his better-financed foes in the Republican primaries--and why, in a year when the Democratic nominee should by all rights be crushing his Republican opponent, Obama hasn't been able to put McCain away.

America's founders made character count in presidential elections, devising the office of the presidency to combine the functions of king (that is, head of state) and prime minister. George Mason called the presidency an "elective monarchy." Today, the presidency continues to combine these two offices, which are separate in parliamentary systems. As prime minister, the president sets policies and directs government; but, as head of state, he is also a symbol of the aspirations of the people. Accordingly, both policy and character typically play a role in presidential campaigns.

Voters look for different kinds of presidential character. Sometimes, they look for candidates they can identify with--candidates whom they see as "one of us." Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush fit that bill. Sometimes, they look for strong and caring parental figures--like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. But many times they have looked for heroes, and particularly military heroes. All in all, 13 presidents--from George Washington to Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant to George Bush the elder--have been elected primarily or partly on the basis of their status as military heroes.

Not all of these heroes turned presidents were the same, however. To be clear about McCain's appeal, we need to distinguish among four varieties of heroism, with the proviso that some heroes will qualify for more than one variety. First, there are heroes as models of success--Michael Jordan in basketball, Meryl Streep in acting, Steve Jobs in business. They are individuals whom people want to emulate. They don't necessarily exhibit any commendable moral qualities or leadership ability, although a conviction for child abuse or a betting scandal can dim their luster.

Second, there are heroes as effective moral-minded leaders. Generals like Washington and Dwight Eisenhower fit this mold. They are admired and respected for their leadership ability, but are not necessarily models because their achievements are seen as being beyond the aspirations of an ordinary individual. They are the objects of what Thomas Carlyle, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, called "transcendent admiration."

Third, there are heroes as death-defying moral exemplars who risk their lives to save others or to adhere to a high moral standard. These would include Medal of Honor winners and the passengers of United Flight 93. John Kennedy, of PT-109 fame, fit this category when he was running for president.

Finally, there are heroes as death-defying world-historical leaders who physically risk themselves to save or advance a people or a country. These include Jesus, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. These are the rarest, and most esteemed, of heroes. In an August 2001 Harris Poll that asked respondents to name their heroes, three of the top five choices were this kind of figure.

McCain fits the profile of the death-defying moral exemplar. He was not acting as leader of a nation or a people when he was imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton. His heroism consisted of inviting torture and risking his life for the sake of upholding the military code, which forbade him to accept release while POWs who had been imprisoned before him continued to be held. But, while McCain's actions don't match those of the world-historical leader, they still strike a plangent chord with the public. Why? The reason, it turns out, has a lot to do with the fear of death.

Hero worship as a whole is probably rooted in early feelings about one's parents--a child's first models of success and leadership--but admiration of death-defying heroes reaches more deeply into the psyche. It, too, is informed by early feelings about fathers and mothers, but it also derives implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, from our fear of death. Thoughts about death are not usually conscious, but they nevertheless play an important role in our reaction to people and events. Fear of death, wrote Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, "must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function."

What is important about death-defying heroes is that they are seen as having been able to overcome their own fear of death. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote, "No matter what a man's frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever. Inferior to ourselves in this or that way, if yet we cling to life, and he is able 'to fling it away like a flower' as caring nothing for it, we account him in the deepest way our born superior. Each of us in his own person feels that a high-hearted indifference to life would expiate all his shortcomings." Becker made a similar argument in The Denial of Death. "Heroism," he wrote, "is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be."

One way to gauge the depth of this kind of hero-worship is to look at its prevalence in classical mythology or religion. These are universal barometers of our deepest fears and wishes. The first mythological heroes, as psychologist Otto Rank pointed out, always combined the mortal and the immortal. Later, the great mythic heroes had to endure repeated tests and conquer their fear of death in order to triumph. Theseus could only return to found Athens after slaying the Minotaur. Aeneas had to journey to the Underworld before founding Rome. Other mythic and religious heroes not only confronted death, but actually died and rose again. Becker describes Christianity as a competitor of several mystery cults of the Eastern Mediterranean, which, like it, featured a "divine hero ... who had come back from the dead."

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell's extensive study of myth and religion, he writes that "everywhere ... the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens in the interval of the hero's nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power, mankind is also unanimous in declaring." McCain, of course, is not Aeneas, and his experience in Hanoi was not the stuff of myth. But much of his story's appeal comes from the same psychological sources that drew ancients to their culture's prevailing myths, and--ironically, given that conservatives have frequently accused Obama of presenting his candidacy in messianic terms--the same sources that still draw believers to the story of Christ's heroism and resurrection today.

McCain's story, like those of ancient heroes, hinges on his brush with death--what came before, during, and after. First, there is his pre-heroic period: McCain as carefree adventurer and lover. Like Odysseus (who tried unsuccessfully to feign madness in order to avoid fighting in Troy) or Buddha (who spent his first 29 years luxuriating as a prince) he did not seem clearly possessed of the qualities that would later distinguish him. "In high school and the Naval Academy, John earned a reputation as a troublemaker," recounted Fred Thompson in his convention speech, before going on to note that "in flight school in Pensacola, he did drive a Corvette and date a girl who worked in a bar as an exotic dancer under the name of 'Marie, the Flame of Florida.'"

Second, there is the period of "dying to the world," characterized by withdrawal--in McCain's case, into prison--and by the threat of death. Here is Thompson describing McCain's early days in the Hanoi Hilton: "His other broken bones and injuries were not treated. John developed a high fever and dysentery. He weighed barely a hundred pounds. Expecting him to die, his captors placed him in a cell with two other POWs who also expected him to die." In McCain's own speech, he said, "I was dumped in a dark cell and left to die." (McCain's speech contained eight references to individuals, including himself, dying or facing death. Obama's speech in Denver contained one.)

Third, there is the period of McCain's rebirth and re-emergence. After McCain returned home a "national hero," Rudy Giuliani said in his convention speech, "he had earned a life of peace and quiet, but he was called to public service again, running for Congress and then the Senate as a proud foot soldier in the Reagan revolution." Note Giuliani saying that McCain was "called to" public service, as if he ran for office not out of ambition, but in response to a summons from on high. McCain himself described his captivity as being "blessed by misfortune." It transformed him. As he put it in his convention speech, "I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. ... I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's." McCain, like the great religious figures, had abandoned his mortal self. It became merged, however, not with a people or a religious group, but with a nation.

The difference between McCain and other recent war heroes turned politicians lies in the continuity he has established between his acts of heroism and his later political life. McCain has successfully portrayed his brush with death as the foundation of his selflessness. "I do believe that when you look back at my history, it's just remarkable that with all the things I've been through that I'm still here," McCain told Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes" last month. "And I interpret that as an opportunity to serve a cause greater than my self interest. " In other words, the man willing to lose his self became the selfless politician who put "country first."

In the 2004 election, John Kerry attempted to parlay his own heroism in Vietnam, for which he received a Silver Star, into political success. Like McCain, Kerry was a death-defying moral exemplar. Like McCain, Kerry dedicated much of his convention to telling his story. But, ultimately, Kerry's strategy did not work. Most Democrats assumed later that Kerry was thwarted by the scurrilous Swift Boat ads that questioned his heroism. But the real problem lay in Kerry's inability to establish thematic continuity between his heroism and his political life. His antiwar activity after returning home (which, at the least, required explanation) and his justifiable reputation as a political flip-flopper (which suggested a lack of courage) posed problems in this regard. As a result, Kerry's heroism didn't resonate the way McCain's has.

To be sure, McCain's recitation of his own heroism is contrary to the ethos of heroism. The hero, exemplified by George Washington, is supposed to be modest in retelling his exploits. In Revolutionary Characters, Gordon S. Wood quotes a Frenchman marveling about Washington: "He speaks of the American War, and of his victories, as of things in which he had no direction." The hero--again typified by Washington, who astonished his compatriots in 1783 by abandoning public life--is also not supposed to take advantage of his renown. To do so would be to exploit his reputation for being above self-interest to achieve a self-interested objective--a blatant contradiction. But McCain published an autobiography in 1999, which he and his staff promoted at campaign appearances during the 2000 primaries; and, during this year's Republican primaries, his campaign featured a twelve-minute video highlighting his captivity and survival, as well as appearances by his fellow POWs.

McCain has tried to get around this problem by sometimes downplaying his heroism. "A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did," he said in his convention speech. And he has continually insisted that he speaks reluctantly of his own experience. When an ABC News reporter asked him this summer whether his time as a POW qualified him to be president, McCain "bristled" at the question. Later, he explained to the reporter, "I kind of reacted the way I did because I have a reluctance to talk about my experiences." Historians, surveying McCain's career, are unlikely to be convinced by such protestations, but the public seems to have accepted them. It has focused on McCain's heroism rather than on the fact that he and his campaign are using it to their advantage.

Last April, Gallup ran a poll that asked people about McCain's heroism and how it affected their view of him. That poll, taken well before the campaign had begun massively advertising, confirms that much of McCain's appeal lies in his reputation as a hero. Sixty-six percent of respondents thought McCain was a "war hero," including 58 percent of Democrats. Thirty-eight percent said that McCain's military service made it more likely they would vote for him, and 15 percent said it was a "major factor" in their support. Those who said it was a "major factor" included 14 percent of independents and 10 percent of Democrats.

There were no similar polling questions after the Republican convention. Instead, pollsters, who seem to take their cue from cable news, were obsessed with measuring Sarah Palin's effect on the GOP ticket. Perhaps as a result, few observers seem to have considered the very likely possibility that McCain's post-convention bounce was caused less by Palin--whose popularity, after all, is largely limited to right-wing Republicans--and more by McCain's relentless efforts at the convention to reinforce his image as a hero.

But, even if the perception of heroism was responsible for McCain's post-convention bounce, it's far from clear whether it will be enough to carry him across the finish line ahead of Obama. McCain's status as a hero is wrapped up with the kind of nationalism ("country first") most dramatically inspired by a quasi-religious understanding of foreign policy as a struggle between good and evil. And, since voters' attraction to McCain's brand of heroism is triggered in part by concerns about their own mortality, it is bound to be strongest when foreign threats are at the forefront of political debate. At the moment, however, foreign policy and the specter of terrorist attacks have been overshadowed by a financial crisis and an economic downturn. These constitute less favorable terrain on which a war hero can stake his reputation.

And yet that doesn't mean he can't try. When McCain recently suspended his campaign and announced he was returning to Washington to help solve the financial crisis, many commentators saw a desperate politician trying to reassure voters that he really did care about economics. But there was more to it than that. McCain was trying to change the subject of the presidential campaign from economic policy to leadership--from issues to character. By dramatically swooping into Washington as if he alone could resolve the crisis, McCain was doing exactly what had worked so well for him at the GOP convention: He was reasserting his heroism. He did the same thing at last week's debate, beginning his closing statement with the following words: "When I came home from prison ..." Will this gambit succeed? Who knows what will happen on November 4, but heroism as political strategy has so far kept McCain close in a year when no Republican should have had any shot at capturing the White House. And, in that sense, it has already worked.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.

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