About halfway through Ethan Canin's political new novel, America America, there's talk of what makes a great American president. The discussion hangs upon Isaiah Berlin's distinction between two sorts of thinkers -- his fox and his hedgehog.
"The fox knows lots of things. The hedgehog knows only one thing but he knows it in his bones," says Liam Metarey, the novel's wise man.
Liam Metarey then divides American presidents into foxes and hedgehogs. "Washington was a monist. A hedgehog. A charismatic one, too," he says. Then then lists the foxes that include John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- the "greatest" pluralist of them all (the novel doesn't discuss G.W. Bush who, as a self-confessed know nothing, is the first US President to be neither a fox nor a hedgehog).
"The monist tends to wins against the pluralist," Metarey explains. "And most so amidst uncertainty. That's the mathematical lesson of history."
If we accept this "mathematical lessons of history", then what does it tell us about the current election? I suspect it's one more reason why Obama will win in November. McCain is a classic fox
hedgehog, a man of many talents and identities -- naval officer, prisoner of war, military hero, Republican, Congressman, independent. Obama, in contrast, knows only one thing in his bones -- and that's his own unique role in history. Mr Metarey is right. Times of uncertainty favor the charismatic monist over the talented pluralist (Lincoln is another example of a great hedgehog).
Today, Americans only want to know one thing about their next president -- that he'll change the country. Obama might not be Washington or Lincoln, but it's the singlemindedness of his purpose and his belief in himself that will win this election. More than 70% of Americans believe their country is going in the wrong direction. Liam Metarey's mathematical lesson of history says that Obama can't lose in '08.