Monday, November 10, 2008


At one point over the weekend, the conversation turned to Barack Obama's appeal to white voters, and the notion of the "magic Negro" came up. Afterward, I went back and read David Ehrenstein's op-ed on the subject from March 2007, which cited Wikipedia's "magical negro" entry.

And it occurred to me that you can plug John McCain into the "magic Negro" template -- or at least John McCain as seen by worshipers in his campaign such as Mark Salter, and perhaps ultimately by McCain himself. You just have to replace the notion of blackness with the notion of five years in the Hanoi Hilton; in the McCain version, the beneficiary is not the white protagonist, but civilian America.

Here's Wikipedia (emphasis added):

The magical negro (sometimes called the mystical negro or magic negro) is a term generally used to describe a supporting, often mystical stock character in fiction who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist get out of trouble....

The magical negro is typically but not always "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint," often a janitor or prisoner. ... He sometimes fits the black stereotype, "prone to criminality and laziness." To counterbalance this, he has some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters." He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth."...

Patient? Wise? Dispensing various words of wisdom? Closer to the earth? That was the lauded McCain of the town-hall meetings and the endless discussions at the back of the bus.

He's disabled by unhealed injuries. He's been a prisoner. And prior to his imprisonment he was, if not "prone to criminality and laziness," certainly prone to being a troublemaker and a bad boy.

I think the McCain campaign wanted us to believe that surviving Hanoi gave him magical powers -- the power, for instance to go to Washington and ride to the rescue during bailout negotiations, even though he didn't know a damn thing about the economy. (In that instance, McCain himself seemed to believe the myth.)

Curiously, Mark Salter, the McCain speechwriter and book coauthor, includes a magic nonwhite person -- a Native American, not an African-American -- in one of the McCain/Salter book collaborations, as Michael Crowley of The New Republic noted a while back. Remember as you read this that Pete Salter, Mark Salter's father, served in the Korean War, but Mark himself has never worn the uniform.

The book [Why Courage Matters] reveals how Pete Salter fought alongside a Native American corporal named Mitchell Red Cloud, a minor hero of Army history. During a brutal battle with Chinese soldiers near Chonghyon, Korea, Red Cloud was severely injured but insisted on staying behind to give his retreating comrades cover. At his urging, Pete Salter tied his wounded comrade to a tree so he could continue firing while others escaped.

... Pete Salter died in 1999, but, according to some friends, Mark has not been fatherless. "McCain is his dad--that's how he feels about it," says one Salter friend. (Salter himself rejects such talk.)

Salter's writing about his father makes clear that he, like McCain, is keenly aware of his ties to a past legacy, to an era of U.S. wars now fading into mythology. Thanks to Red Cloud, he wrote, Pete Salter "owed his life, and all that came of his life, including his children, to another man's courage ... he knew [that debt] would survive him and be carried by his descendants."...

Perhaps, to Salter, McCain isn't his father -- McCain is Red Cloud, someone whose valor in the sacrifice of his life (even though, magically, he's still alive) could make all us noncombatants better people.

Oh, and by the way: in Salter's account, his father ties Red Cloud to a tree -- Red Cloud passed nobility to his white comrade as he was about to die. In fact, the U.S. Army's version of the story is somewhat different:

With utter fearlessness [Red Cloud] maintained his firing position until severely wounded by enemy fire. Refusing assistance he pulled himself to his feet and wrapping his arm around a tree continued his deadly fire again, until he was fatally wounded.

So perhaps Red Cloud didn't magically pass valor to his comrade Pete Salter, the way Mark Salter hoped, in vain, that McCain would pass it to America.


AND: Excellent point made by Aimai in comments, McCain was once supposed to be the GOP's "sacrificial elder king," serving one term until the next era of "new, young, vigorous republican domination." You should definitely read her comment in its entirety.

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