Gods and Monsters

The mythic quality of the presidential candidates. 

Don’t the presidential candidates give you the feeling that you’ve seen it all before? It’s not because of their endless debates, or their lousy TV commercials, or their continual name-calling. These guys themselves strike a distant chord of recognition because they’ve been around for eons. Not since the Clinton sex scandals, which was an all-Greek frolic (see “The Sex God“), have so many public figures corresponded so closely to figures from mythology.

George W. Bush: Phaethon. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Phaethon was a minor figure who liked to trade on the fact that he was the son of Apollo. The trouble started, according to Bulfinch’s Mythology, when “a schoolfellow laughed at the idea of his being the son of the god.” Hurt, Phaethon went to his mortal mother and begged her to take him to his father. Apollo embraced Phaethon and promised to grant him any wish. Phaethon, who had more cockiness than experience, asked to drive his father’s chariot of the sun. Apollo, says Ovid, tells his son, “It is a major privilege that you are asking for, Phaethon, and one unsuited to your strength or to your boyish years.” But Phaethon, who knew in his heart he could be a real leader of horses, refused to listen.

Before handing over the keys, Apollo offered this advice: “The middle way is safest. Nor must you swerve to the right, towards the coiling Serpent, not to the left, where the low-lying Altar shines.” (Apollo really shouldn’t have worried about Phaethon swerving to the left.) “Hold your course between them both.” The chariot must have quickly passed over New Hampshire, because almost immediately it began swinging wildly.

Phaethon was not in a position to conduct focus groups to devise alternative strategies, so all he could do was hang on. As Ovid writes, “He wished now that he had never touched his father’s horses; he regretted that he had learned his parentage, and that his request had been granted.” Everyone else felt the same way. As the sun chariot careened around the Earth, cities were ignited. It got so bad that even Zeus was distracted from his pursuit of nymphs. To stop the destruction, he knocked Phaethon out of the chariot with a deadly thunderbolt.

John McCain: Fin MacCumhail. MacCumhail, (pronounced MacCool) was a fierce, somewhat crazed Celtic warrior. His name means “white cap,” a reference to his head of white hair. MacCumhail and McCain both descend from military men and both share a predilection for narrowly escaping death. When MacCumhail was a boy, he was thrown into a loch and left to drown. But he managed to push himself back to the surface, holding a salmon. During flight training, McCain crashed a plane into Corpus Christi Bay and was knocked unconscious. He came to as the plane settled on the bottom and barely made it out of the cockpit. His memoir does not say if he emerged with any aquatic life in hand.

MacCumhail’s enemies wanted his head, so to escape he spent five years sitting in a carved-out tree. When he emerged, according to the tale “The Birth of Fin MacCumhail,” “he couldn’t walk, he had been sitting so long inside.” Later he was captured by a giant and held in his cave, and while there MacCumhail burned his thumb. The pain made him gnaw his flesh to the bone, “the bone to the marrow; and having tasted the marrow, he received the knowledge of all things.”

McCain spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp having his limbs repeatedly broken. He recounts in Faith of My Fathers: “Weakened by beatings and dysentery, and with my right leg again nearly useless, I found it almost impossible to stand.” His captors put an unlined cast on his broken arm and, he writes, “the rough plaster painfully rubbed against my skin. Over time, it wore two holes in the back of my arm down to the bone.” Like MacCumhail, McCain found the tortures transformed him: “I would no longer err out of self-doubt or to alter a fate I felt had been imposed on me.”

MacCumhail and his men enjoyed years of wild adventures. Take their encounter with “a strange champion” named Fear Dubh (the Gaelic pronunciation is not “Dubya,” but it should be), who invited them to feast in his castle. When MacCumhail and his men sat down at the table, the door closed and they discovered they were stuck to their seats. MacCumhail’s son arrived at the castle and after a bloody fight beheaded the strange champion. But MacCumhail sucked on the marrow of his thumb and knew worse danger was in store. He told his men, “The mother of Fear Dubh is coming … [she is] more to be dreaded, a greater warrior than her sons.”

Al Gore: Sir Gawain. Gawain was one of the most loyal knights of King Arthur’s court, the “model of knightly perfection” according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Think of Al Gore as the chiseled-featured preppy who was captain of the football team and head of the debate club at St. Albans, as well as Bill Clinton’s spear carrier. The problem with Gawain is that the longer he hung around in the literature, the less impressive he seemed, lacking the sexiness of Lancelot or the inspiration of Perceval. By the Renaissance, his image was that of a treacherous figure who had fallen from grace.

Like all good knights, Gawain spent most of his time on quests. In his 1992 ecological manifesto, Earth in the Balance, Gore explained his quest: “Writing this book is part of a personal journey that began more than twenty-five years ago … it has also led me to undertake a deeper kind of inquiry, one that is ultimately an investigation of the very nature of our civilization and its relationship to the global environment.” Such writing may sound pretentious, but remember, your journey is no quest if all you’re doing is seeing which grocery store has the best price on bananas.

On one quest, Gawain stopped at the castle of a lord and lady. While the lord was out hunting, the lady kept trying to seduce Gawain. He was able to resist until she offered him her magic girdle of bright green. If he wore the girdle, she explained, he would be protected from death. (Scholars have yet to analyze how the girdle’s power would have been affected if it had come in earth tones.) The problem was that taking gifts violated his knightly vows. In the 14th-century epic Sir Gawainand the Green Knight, his transgression is considered minor. In other words, there was no controlling legal authority preventing the acceptance of the girdle. And yet, Gawain realized, he had damaged his reputation and his self-perception. He says of himself, “Now I am faulty and false and found fearful always.” But his own fall from grace helped him see Arthur and all the other knights in a different light. He realized they were all a bunch of rogues. Gawain concluded it was better to be a pragmatic live knight than a virtuous dead one.

Bill Bradley: Odin. The chief god of Norse mythology, Odin is a dark, brooding figure, devoted to his pet ravens, Thought and Memory. (Perhaps they were the ghostwriters for Bradley’s memoir Time Present, Time Past.) Odin and his wife, Frigg, live near Valhalla, the hall of slain heroes, over which Odin presides. Various sources describe him as “a tall rugged man in his 50s” and “a strange and solemn figure, always aloof.” Odin is a seeker of wisdom, consulting both “giants” (presumably a team of Nordic proto-NBA players) and “dwarves” (everyone else). He can be “terrible, arrogant, and capricious,” “maybe a god to be respected, but not a god to be loved.” Unexpectedly, he is the god of poetry; he worked hard to become a poet himself. In The Well of Remembrance, by Ralph Metzner, the god is described this way: “Though he inspired his followers, some to the point of self-sacrifice, Odin also has the reputation of at times abandoning those devoted to him. … While Odin could be generous with his wisdom he was not known to be warm-hearted.” In The Norse Myths, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Odin says of himself, “I’ve roamed far and I’ve learned much and all that the gods know I know.”

Compare this to recent descriptions of Bradley in the Los Angeles Times: “[L]ittle in his fading campaign for the presidency, little in his outsized life, has come simply. … At 56, he is a cerebral, deliberative figure with a writer’s eye for observing the world around him. … Bradley is a solitary figure, shrouded inside a plaid wool afghan as he hunches over sheaths of position papers. … He might emerge raging and fiery, hair strands askew and face reddened. … But the distant Bradley soon returns, sometimes in the same speech, peering out remotely over his half-glasses.”

To the Los Angeles Times, it’s “painfully apparent in the weeks of drift … how much Bill Bradley may have wounded his campaign by being himself.” But with Odin it’s hard to imagine things turning out any other way. Here’s one of Odin’s own poems about taking advice:

Happy is he who hath in himself
Praise and wisdom in life;
for oft doth a man ill counsel get
when ‘tis born in another’s breast.