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.
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
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