Wednesday, March 05, 2008

If Candidates Were Cars...

THERE'S SOME CAPITALIST IN ALL OF US. In the bad old days before young people got so in tune with the environment and protecting the planet from nasty hydro-carbons, one of the first statements of individual personality an adolescent could make was his choice of automobile. I'm not talking about the first automobile actually owned or driven, but the one imprinted on, the object of desire featured in individual fantasies of moving out into the big wide world in style. For example, this was mine:

I could claim that I outgrew it, but I didn't. Not really. It's still there in the back of my mind, that vision of myself young and fancy free driving like the wind in what I still think is the most beautiful production car ever made. A lot of you know what I mean. You see the view from the driver's seat and the picture of yourself driving it simultaneously, and you know exactly where you're going, how the ride sounds and smells and feels, and even what music is playing on the radio. It's all just burned in there, hence my use of the word 'imprinted.'

I think the archetypal age is seventeen, which is when most of us got our licenses and acquired the first experience of being in charge behind the wheel. Everything before that moment is infantile voyeurism. Afterwards the imagination incorporates all the senses into the fantasy. It becomes a very detailed metaphor for how we see ourselves at the cusp of adulthood.

What was the automobile you imprinted on? And what, just for fun, were the automobiles that figured in the first thrusts of self-definition by Hillary Rodham, Barack Obama, and John McCain when they were seventeen? Not having met them, obviously, we have to go on what they've done, what they say they believe, and what we can infer from the way they act on the public stage. So here are my guesses. You're free to disagree or nominate your own alternatives. All I ask is that if you do disagree, please explain your choices as logically as I explain mine. The formula is simple: date of birth plus 17 identifies the year in which the brand new vehicle that's always the stuff of fantasy was made. Ladies first:

Hillary = 1947 + 17 = 1964

She's always been motivated by the concept of service rather than fun. Practicality would be key, the ability to carry things and people from where they are to where she knows they ought to go. Convertibles are unsafe, big luxury cruisers are ostentatious and anti-egalitarian, and trucks resonate with the worst of all substances on earth, testosterone. Given what we know of her sojourns at Yale and Berkeley during the radical era, it's tempting to think she'd have been captivated by a VW bus replete with (anachronistic) McCarthy sticker. But that's too easy and probably wrong. She's always had the solidarity with labor that accompanies her humble origins in coal-mining country. She would absolutely have wanted an American car, and perferably one manufactured by a company that wasn't as obsessed with profits as the Big Three. Here's our nomination.

1964 Studebaker Lark Station Wagon

It's a blue-state feminist's dream, isn't it? You could put a whole buttload of entitlements into the back end of that thing, and it's still not a big-ass truck. (Not even wide at the hips.) Also, Studebaker had the good taste to go out of business a few years after this eminently utilitarian vehicle failed to attract lots of unseemly sales. Which is really hard to understand, because look at the progressive advertising campaign they ran. (All right. I'm not exactly sure what I mean by 'progressive' in this context. But I don't know what Hillary means by 'progressive' in the context of her atavistic Great Society-like social program proposals, either. Consider it a blind spot on my part.) Here's what I do know, though. The song that would be playing on the radio is one of 1964's top hits by Gerry & the Pacemakers. It kind of breaks your heart a little bit. Doesn't it?

Obama = 1961 + 17 = 1978

He's so serious looking in the picture up top. You can tell he'd want something a little dignified, but nothing that anyone would interpret as flashy or superficial. It would have to be sensible and economical, because look at what's happening with gas prices in spite of Jimmy Carter's heroic middle east diplomacy. And it would absolutely have to be American, because all this business of trading with foreign countries is a slippery slope (besides, Kenya wasn't making cars back then). But there should also be just a hint of a statement, maybe not as far as a Ferrakhan would go, but despite all his disgusting millions, Henry Ford had it right about some things. Maybe this would have been young Obama's dream.

1978 Ford Fairmont

It's a fine picture, isn't it? There you are with your best girl in the dark night of that terrible time in America before Columbia and Princeton and Harvard started knocking down doors to get you to grace them with your presence, and all you have in this moment of Godforsaken limbo is the blazing light of your own high beams to illuminate the impossibly difficult road ahead. And the stars, of course, which were always there to signify the immense importance of your personal journey. What's playing on the Fairmont radio as the lovers snuggle discontentedly together in the bleakness of their velour despair? One of these songs, perhaps this one by Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis. Yeah, that sounds about right.

McCain = 1936 +17 = 1953

Let's face it. John-Boy McCain wasn't exactly a visionary when he was seventeen. He was a military brat who'd be scraping through Annapolis at the bottom of his class in a few years. So there's no mystery at all about the piece of Detroit iron he'd have imprinted on. Something about flying low with a gorgeous blonde at your elbow. There was only one real choice for a red-blooded American jock.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette

Sad in a way. It can't help but point out what an old man he is now, obsolete in his utter lack of finesse and nuance. Who on earth would share this particular juvenile fantasy in our day and age? I hate to mention what was probably playing on the radio. It would have to have been one of these dinsosaur tunes. Probably this one.

But, as I said, I could be dead wrong. If I am, I'm sure some of you will let me know.

UPDATE. A couple of commenters have checked in with their "imprint" vehicles. One is the same as mine (see above). Two others are so cool they really have to be shared with all of you.

XK-120 Jaguar Roadster. Bigger photo here.

1950 Mercury Coupe. More and bigger photos here.

Personally, I think everyone should come clean about this, including their music choices. It would be a gratifying catharsis for them.

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