J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Over and over, they spun different versions of the same notion. We are telling America's story, they said. We are redefining, recapturing, reframing the American dream. A deep obsession with the story of America — who tells it and who gets to write its next chapter — was a rare piece of common ground that speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions managed to share.
"We are all here to reignite the American dream," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "Our national story is one of confronting challenges," said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican. "Let me tell you my American story," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. "We're special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else come true here," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Mitt Romney spoke passionately of "the essence of the American experience." Barack Obama talked emphatically of "the basic bargain at the heart of America's story."
So it went, with more than 150 mentions of America's "story" or "dream" across the two conventions. Why not? This is, after all, an entire nation founded upon a story of promise and prosperity, of exceptionalism and starting anew, a shared story that to some extent still holds America together and to some extent tears it apart.
A political convention is many things, and an explosion of storytelling is obviously one of them. But burrow deeper into the stories and into the notion of political storytelling itself, and there are clues about how Americans see themselves and where they differ.
"Storytelling forms the heart of political rhetoric," says Curt Smith, who wrote many of the speeches that George H.W. Bush delivered while in the White House. "Ronald Reagan once told me, if you give someone 10 facts and one story and if the story is told well, it's the story that you recall."
In the past two weeks, we saw speaker after speaker use anecdotes that resonated. The story from Democratic Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio was about his mother fighting hard for civil rights "so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone." Rubio spoke of his father, a banquet bartender, and said he embodied the American dream: "He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room."
Beyond the stories themselves, it was striking that many speakers acknowledged and articulated that they were in fact talking about stories and dreams. It was as if they were issuing a message to their constituencies and beyond: America is an epic story, and we must be the ones to define it.
"It's part of our cultural background — the American story is part of what makes us special. Whether it's the bootstrap theory or Horatio Alger or the American dream, it is very real for many of us," says Natalie Davis, who ran for the Senate in 1996 under the theme "The Promise of America."
"The story works, we can connect to it. And it has strategic value for each party," says Davis, now a political scientist at the Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. "We have to have it. We're not politically astute. We don't understand the ins and outs of all this stuff. But we know there are words and phrases that ring bells to each of us. And if you can weave those bells and whistles into the narrative, people will buy it."
It's hard to find another country whose destiny has been so wrapped up in story from the very beginning.
First it was "the shining city upon a hill." Then it was "all men are created equal" and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Each subsequent experience became another chapter. There was the conquering of the frontier, the rise of industrialism, Ellis Island, the spread of the automobile and the roads that carried it, the emergence of America as a global leader, postwar suburbanization. Hollywood only made this more intense, spending decades slickly packaging the American story for mass happy-ending consumption.
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