ATLANTA (Reuters) - The U.S. presidential election presents a sharp contrast between two types of patriotism: John McCain stands as a war hero. His rival Barack Obama calls Americans back to the can-do spirit of the nation’s founders.
In November the candidates will find out which style appealed more to voters in this time of war and economic uncertainty.
Unlike other democratic countries, patriotism, though a fuzzy concept, plays powerfully in U.S. elections, when Americans are often reminded of their country’s revolutionary roots and politicians tap into a sense of national pride.
Democratic candidate Obama has made patriotism a core theme of his campaign, seeking to inspire voters to overcome divisions of race and party and using his own story as a child of a Kenyan father and Kansas mother as an example of opportunities available only in America.
But on the campaign trail, audiences also applaud Republican McCain’s tales of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam which embody qualities he seeks to project as a candidate.
As a Navy pilot, McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. He was stabbed, beaten, tortured and imprisoned for more than five years, including two years in solitary confinement.
The appeal of that biography, encapsulating triumph over adversity while serving one’s country, was apparent on Saturday in televised interviews with each candidate by a leading pastor, Rick Warren, at his megachurch in California.
Asked to describe the hardest decision he ever made, Obama talked about his decision to oppose the Iraq war.
McCain recounted how he decided to refuse early repatriation from a Hanoi prison even though he was injured, because he did not want to jump the line — a story that visibly resonated with the audience.
Nothing in Obama’s life story can match those experiences and they reinforce McCain’s slogan of “Country First,” said Richard Kohn, professor of history at the University of North Carolina.
“For McCain, not only does it (patriotism) arise from his very being, his identity, but it plays a dual role of emphasizing a national security part of the campaign and the contrast between him and Obama,” he said.
McCain retired from the Navy in 1981 and entered politics. He stresses his war years in questioning Obama’s foreign policy credentials and readiness to be commander-in-chief.
For his part, Obama praises McCain’s patriotic service but has made unswerving opposition to the Iraq war a pillar of his campaign and vows to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.
Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, an island far from the U.S. mainland. As a result, he could be vulnerable to the charge that his background and values are unfamiliar.
One possible method of exploiting this emerged last week in a memo by campaign strategist Mark Penn for one-time Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton, which suggested she could defeat Obama by running an explicitly patriotic campaign.
Obama should be presented as someone not “fundamentally American,” said the memo in advice Clinton did not adopt.
In an apparent bid to overcome any skepticism about his background and values, the Democratic party will showcase Obama’s life story at its convention in Denver next week, starting with a speech by his wife Michelle on opening night.
“He’s going to demonstrate love of country by word and deed at the convention,” said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman.
“It’s not something that you repeat: ‘I am patriot’. There are no specific patriotic activities. It’s got to come across at an authentic and sincere way,” Mellman said.
Obama would be the country’s first black president and as such faces an extra hurdle as he attempts to persuade voters.
“There is a historic suspicion that African Americans are less patriotic,” Kohn said.
Black Americans have fought in all the country’s wars but their loyalty has been questioned because many black leaders have criticized U.S. policies on race and some whites assume historic discrimination against them, which includes slavery, would have undermined their commitment to U.S. ideals.
“Conservative whites look at them (blacks) as unpatriotic and yet if you look at the constitution and the history, the black community has been trying to make that constitution work for everybody,” said Ronald Walters, professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland.
Walters contrasted what he called “bumper sticker patriotism” with what he said was a struggle many African Americans had engaged in to make the country a real democracy.
Nowhere is McCain’s war hero status shown more clearly than in his bond with military veterans, a group held in higher public esteem in the United States than in most other Western countries.
But Peter Melendez, a combat instructor recently retired from the U.S. army after 22 years, said that even for veterans McCain’s status should not necessarily be a decisive factor.
“He has been in combat and I have been in combat but just because he is a military man running for office doesn’t mean he has the right to run the country,” Melendez said.
Editing by Michael Christie, Jackie Frank and David Storey