Gods and Monsters

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March 3 2000 9:30 PM

Gods and Monsters

The mythic quality of the presidential candidates. 

Don't the presidential candidates give you the feeling that you've seen it all before? It's not because of their endless debates, or their lousy TV commercials, or their continual name-calling. These guys themselves strike a distant chord of recognition because they've been around for eons. Not since the Clinton sex scandals, which was an all-Greek frolic (see "The Sex God"), have so many public figures corresponded so closely to figures from mythology.

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Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe last wrote for Slate about the museum of urology in Baltimore. Elizabeth Yoffe provided research for this piece. You can e-mail the author at eyoffe@hotmail.com. 
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George W. Bush: Phaethon. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Phaethon was a minor figure who liked to trade on the fact that he was the son of Apollo. The trouble started, according to Bulfinch's Mythology, when "a schoolfellow laughed at the idea of his being the son of the god." Hurt, Phaethon went to his mortal mother and begged her to take him to his father. Apollo embraced Phaethon and promised to grant him any wish. Phaethon, who had more cockiness than experience, asked to drive his father's chariot of the sun. Apollo, says Ovid, tells his son, "It is a major privilege that you are asking for, Phaethon, and one unsuited to your strength or to your boyish years." But Phaethon, who knew in his heart he could be a real leader of horses, refused to listen.

Before handing over the keys, Apollo offered this advice: "The middle way is safest. Nor must you swerve to the right, towards the coiling Serpent, not to the left, where the low-lying Altar shines." (Apollo really shouldn't have worried about Phaethon swerving to the left.) "Hold your course between them both." The chariot must have quickly passed over New Hampshire, because almost immediately it began swinging wildly.

Phaethon was not in a position to conduct focus groups to devise alternative strategies, so all he could do was hang on. As Ovid writes, "He wished now that he had never touched his father's horses; he regretted that he had learned his parentage, and that his request had been granted." Everyone else felt the same way. As the sun chariot careened around the Earth, cities were ignited. It got so bad that even Zeus was distracted from his pursuit of nymphs. To stop the destruction, he knocked Phaethon out of the chariot with a deadly thunderbolt.

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John McCain: Fin MacCumhail. MacCumhail, (pronounced MacCool) was a fierce, somewhat crazed Celtic warrior. His name means "white cap," a reference to his head of white hair. MacCumhail and McCain both descend from military men and both share a predilection for narrowly escaping death. When MacCumhail was a boy, he was thrown into a loch and left to drown. But he managed to push himself back to the surface, holding a salmon. During flight training, McCain crashed a plane into Corpus Christi Bay and was knocked unconscious. He came to as the plane settled on the bottom and barely made it out of the cockpit. His memoir does not say if he emerged with any aquatic life in hand.

MacCumhail's enemies wanted his head, so to escape he spent five years sitting in a carved-out tree. When he emerged, according to the tale "The Birth of Fin MacCumhail," "he couldn't walk, he had been sitting so long inside." Later he was captured by a giant and held in his cave, and while there MacCumhail burned his thumb. The pain made him gnaw his flesh to the bone, "the bone to the marrow; and having tasted the marrow, he received the knowledge of all things."

McCain spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp having his limbs repeatedly broken. He recounts in Faith of My Fathers: "Weakened by beatings and dysentery, and with my right leg again nearly useless, I found it almost impossible to stand." His captors put an unlined cast on his broken arm and, he writes, "the rough plaster painfully rubbed against my skin. Over time, it wore two holes in the back of my arm down to the bone." Like MacCumhail, McCain found the tortures transformed him: "I would no longer err out of self-doubt or to alter a fate I felt had been imposed on me."

MacCumhail and his men enjoyed years of wild adventures. Take their encounter with "a strange champion" named Fear Dubh (the Gaelic pronunciation is not "Dubya," but it should be), who invited them to feast in his castle. When MacCumhail and his men sat down at the table, the door closed and they discovered they were stuck to their seats. MacCumhail's son arrived at the castle and after a bloody fight beheaded the strange champion. But MacCumhail sucked on the marrow of his thumb and knew worse danger was in store. He told his men, "The mother of Fear Dubh is coming … [she is] more to be dreaded, a greater warrior than her sons."

           

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Al Gore: Sir Gawain. Gawain was one of the most loyal knights of King Arthur's court, the "model of knightly perfection" according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Think of Al Gore as the chiseled-featured preppy who was captain of the football team and head of the debate club at St. Albans, as well as Bill Clinton's spear carrier. The problem with Gawain is that the longer he hung around in the literature, the less impressive he seemed, lacking the sexiness of Lancelot or the inspiration of Perceval. By the Renaissance, his image was that of a treacherous figure who had fallen from grace.