Thingish Things

The “Story” is a Campaign Essential

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Sep• 30•11

When Peggy Noonan is on her game, there are few more persuasive than she. And the former Reagan speech writer is decidedly on her game today with a Wall Street Journal column entitled “Once Upon a Time in America.”

Ms. Noonan’s column is so compelling and so well written that it pains me to disagree so completely with its central premise — that America needs a leader, not a story teller. It needs both.

The popular term for story telling among political communications types these days is “narrative” — what’s the campaign narrative?, we ask one another. It’s a good question, because a campaign cannot survive without one.

All good campaigns have narratives. Ms. Noonan’s former boss Ronald Reagan had one: he was the former lifeguard who would save America — the good Democrat whose party left him. Bill Clinton was the overachieving son of an alcoholic from a little town called Hope. Abe Lincoln was the humble Illinois log splitter who embodied American persistence and meritocracy. 

There is a reason campaigns tell stories. They help voters identify with the candidate. They explain his or her values and world view. Narratives keep candidacies on track.  It is easy to hear when one’s words fail to support the story line — when they are “off message.” In short, campaign narratives keep the story straight.     

Ms. Noonan derides this concept, arguing that leadership comes first. If one leads, the story line will follow, she writes. It would be an argument with merit if anyone could get elected today without a good campaign narrative. They cannot. Stories are the hooks a media-saturated public must have to drag — and keep — their attention away from I Tunes and the X Factor. Homo Sapiens have been influenced by storytellers since we sat crossed legged in French caves and recorded their tales on stone walls.

Ms. Noonan understandably focuses her criticism on President Obama, over whose story line she once swooned. Like so many Americans, Ms. Noonan clearly feels burned by it. But it got her to support the President in 2008. (Mr. Obama and his handlers understood the power of story telling better than any campaign team in modern history.)

The problem with the Obama story, though, is that is was fantastical: Obama was to be the next JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr. combined. He was to be the “post-partisan” president who would halt the rise of the seas and usher in global harmony. He was black; he was white; he was Christian; he was Muslim; he was centrist, and he was liberal. He would  lower the debt, cut taxes for the middle class, and create jobs. A man who had been a machine Illinois state senator two years prior, was going to be America’s Messiah.

Fifty-three percent of Americans bought into that narrative in 2008. The problem is not that Mr. Obama told it, the problem is that it was a load of bunk.


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