Stoicism in the American presidential election

It’s interesting to note the extent to which Stoicism still infuses American politics, by taking a brief look at the American presidential election. Nearly all the main candidates have been billed as ‘Stoic’ by their supporters, or detractors, in the American media.

John McCain, closet Zeus worshipper

John McCain, for example, claimed in his 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, that he was taught “stoic acceptance” by the absence of father in the US Navy.

Back in 2000, when he first bid to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, McCain’s stoicism, or Stoicism, was a point of contention in the campaign. One of George W. Bush’ advisors, the born-again Christian Martin Olasky, caused mischief by claiming that McCain wasn’t a Christian so much as a ‘Zeus worshipper’, like the tough guy heroes of Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man In Full, which was published in 1998, and which Olasky reviewed when it came out.

The two heroes of Wolfe’s novel convert to Zeus-worshipping Stoicism after one of them happens to pick up a book on the Stoics while in prison. Tom Wolfe, in turn, got the idea for introducing his characters to Stoicism when he read the memoir of Admiral James Stockdale.

Stockdale, of course, is a similar figure to McCain – both were shot down as pilots during the Vietnam War, and both made their experience of surviving imprisonment and torture the foundation of their resilient moral attitude. For Stockdale, this moral attitude was explicitly Stoic – he memorized the sayings of Epictetus and used them to survive his seven years behind bars. Both also went on to be involved in presidential campaigns – Stockdale was the ill-fated VP candidate for Ross Perot’s bid in 1992.

Tom Wolfe, interviewed in BeliefNet back in 2000, said he saw something of Stockdale’s Stoic resilience in McCain as well. He said: “Epictetus says other philosophers will tell you [that] you have thousands of choices to make in life; it's up to you to make the right choices. I'm here to tell you [that] you probably don't have many choices, but you always have the choice of never saying 'yes' to what is wrong, and never saying 'no' to what is right. And always maintaining your honor. Of course, this fits McCain."

The BeliefNet article went on: “Today, McCain talks of restoring the confidence of Americans in their government, and inspiring young people to live nobly. McCain's Stoic vision is ideally suited for re-moralizing a rich, secular nation in which the familiar vocabulary of religion is greeted with cynicism when employed by a politician. Wolfe calls McCain's apparent Stoicism "a good, bracing draft of cool air in a country that is as plush, lush, and humid with wealth as this one is”.”

This billing of McCain as a Stoic, or even worse, a Zeus-worshipper, was rather controversial, seeing as McCain had in 2000 already denounced the Christian Right as “an evil influence” over the Republican party. Oops. This time around, he has been more careful to keep the Christian right sweet, and we have heard no mention of either the Stoics or Zeus.

Barack Obama, the smooth Stoic

Barack Obama, meanwhile, while not as explicitly linked to a Stoic or Roman republican tradition by political commentators, has been associated with the S-word thanks to his cool and apparently unflappable demeanour.

Jodi Kantor of the New York Times, for example, has written of him in terms resonant of Epictetus: “In the way Mr. Obama has trained himself for competition, he can sometimes seem as much athlete as politician. Even before he entered public life, he began honing not only his political skills, but also his mental and emotional ones. He developed a self-discipline so complete, friends and aides say, that he has established dominion over not only what he does but also how he feels. He does not easily exult, despair or anger: to do so would be an indulgence, a distraction from his goals. Instead, they say, he separates himself from the moment and assesses.”

Obama himself has said: “I have learned that I have what I believe is the right temperament for the presidency, which is I don't get too high when I'm high, and don't get too low when I'm low".

But is this the Stoic training of a man, or the Ciceronian training of an orator – the training always to keep their cool in front of an audience, to control their stage-fright, and ultimately to master, not their emotions, but the emotions of their audience?

The Clintons, unlikely Stoics

The Clintons also lay claim to the Stoic heritage. Bill Clinton, some might remember, named Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as one of his 21 favourite books when he opened his library in 2003. Its message, of controlling our impulses in the name of austerity and virtue, obviously goes to the heart of Clinton’s modus vivendi.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has also frequently been labelled ‘stoic’ by the media, as in ‘Facing Her Doubters, Clinton Remains Stoic’ (IHT, May 8 2008).

Apparently, Clinton is often considered stoic because of her typically steely control of her emotions, her toughness (voters considered her the toughest Democratic candidate) and, perhaps, her quiet endurance of her husband’s marital infidelity.

In fact, the Today Show on NBC claimed that Clinton was perhaps “too stoic” in that “she doesn't reveal enough of herself” (a criticism that has also been directed at Obama). Cue Hillary’s toe-curling sobbing when asked ‘how do you do it’ by a voter in New Hampshire. Her non-Stoic tears were enough to win the voter over. “"She allowed herself to feel," the voter said. “I was surprised and I said, 'wow there's someone there.'”

Everyone’s a Stoic

But it’s not just the three main figures of the presidential campaign who are labelled Stoic. Joe Biden is, according to the Canada Gazette, ‘the stoic senator’; Rudy Giuliani was, of course, ‘stoic’ in the face of September 11; Dick Cheney was “told to look stoic” by an aide in the debates of the previous presidential campaign.

Clearly the ideal of the Stoic ruler, who holds his or her emotions in a firm grasp, still resonates in American political life. As long as the grasp isn’t too firm, and allows the occasional well-timed tear to creep out.

StoicismJules EvansComment