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.
Now take all of that and pour it into a single vessel, the one containing the story of the American president (or candidate), who's supposed to embody all the stories that make up our nation. Without mastery of that sensibility, the candidate falls short. Were Walter Mondale and Bob Dole unqualified to be president? Probably not. But they had the great misfortune of colliding with two of the greatest American storytellers, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
"The presidency of the United States is a very peculiar institution," author Russell Banks writes in "Dreaming Up America," his meditation on what holds us together.
"It's not a person, but a persona or 'role' that a person fills or plays," he writes. "And our president, in some ways even more than a monarch, represents in some very personal way the imagination and the mythology of the people who have elected him. We choose presidents, but we do not choose them on the basis of their experience or even their political views. We choose them based on how well they tap into our basic beliefs, how expressive they are of our own deepest national mythologies."
That's what played out at the conventions — American stories pressed into service to fill up the vessels that are the two candidates. And once you get past the tropes, the stories start shading subtly toward one political philosophy or the other.
Republican stories were harnessed to demonstrate that Obama's vision of America is flawed. The GOP edition of the American story elevated self-reliance and equality — of opportunity, not outcome. Republican storytelling emphasizes people as the solution, places God at the center of the equation and contends Obama sacrifices personal accomplishment and rugged individualism by believing government can fix everything and bypassing what Romney calls "the genius of the American free-enterprise system."
Democrats, working with largely the same raw material — the American dream, the nation as a beacon to the world, the ability to start anew and build a better life for the next generation — spin a similar tale writ large. But in the details, it emphasizes themes of collaboration, of partnership between private accomplishment and public progress. And it's buttressed by the notion, as Obama put it, that "everyone plays by the same rules" — a dig at what Democrats consider a GOP narrative that favors the already rich over the people who want to get there.
In the end, what's striking is not how these two stories differ but how they are variations on a theme. Both parties start with what Banks considers the three facets of the American tale — profits and prosperity, starting over and building a new life, and living in a country that is possessed with a singular holiness that is sometimes godly and sometimes secular.
Both carve out America as something that, more than 200 years later, remains unique. And both use their version of the story as what Smith, who teaches presidential rhetoric at the University of Rochester, calls "an umbilical cord — connecting tissue between the speaker and the audience, between one human being and millions of human beings."
And without the connecting tissue? What happens then?
There is a very ancient story of a young woman named Scheherazade. As legend goes, Scheherazade, to save her life from a king who liked to behead his women, told him a story every night and never finished it. She kept telling the story, and he kept sparing her to continue it for one more night.
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Watching these conventions, speech after speech, and the American stories they so passionately harness, it's hard not to think of Scheherazade. What holds this nation together, exactly, besides geography and a story of possibility? And if we stop telling the story, Republican or Democrat, what will become of us? Beyond the politics, that may be one lesson of the national political convention, 2012 edition: Without the American story, what, exactly, are we?
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted