As a student of literature, art, popular culture and politics, I always have been intrigued by the pervasiveness and power of myth and symbol to captivate the human imagination, shape ideas and influence behavior.
The second edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines myth as "any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly held emotions." The fourth edition of Webster's New World College Dictionary defines symbol as "something that stands for, represents, or suggests another thing."
During the 2012 presidential campaign, myth and symbol are at center stage, much of it surrounding President Barack Obama. In fact, Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, was compelled to write a column, "Five myths about Barack Obama," debunking what he sees as Republican-invented falsehoods about the nation's first black president.
While the Obama myth and symbol grow more negative by the day, the recently published memoir of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Cuban, is a textbook example of myth and symbol being used as powerful tools to create authentic character out of whole cloth.
I give Rubio and his publisher credit for being good, if not cynical, students of U.S. politics and social behavior. He cleverly titled his memoir An American Son. He comprehends the power of the word "American," itself a mythic and archetypal term that is hard to dismiss or denigrate.
In addition to "American," Rubio cleverly uses the term "son," an allusion to birthright and inheritance. It gives him a natural way to discuss his Cuban roots and a cunning way to turn exile into American heroism.
The 41-year-old junior senator has made himself the protagonist, the shinning star, of an instant American myth. Forget that the major event of the narrative — told in the autobiography on Rubio's Senate website — never happened. Rubio claims that his parents, Mario and Oriales Rubio, had fled Cuba after Fidel Castro installed communist rule. Immigration records show that Rubio's parents came to the United States in 1956.
The core of Rubio's political identity is false. How, then, does he rationalize his allusion to the heroism and sacrifice of exile in his memoir's title?
"Exile is not a time frame," he told USA Today. "Exile is an experience. It's a sentiment. For my parents, it's very real pain of being permanently separated from the nation of their birth. … They can never go back and show us the place where my father grew up, or where his parents are buried, or where he used to play baseball, or where they met or where they got married. They can never show us any of those things, and that pain is very real."
This is powerful-sounding stuff, but it omits some important realities. Rubio's parents could have returned to Cuba, but they chose not to. The senator himself recently visited Guantanamo Bay, his first time on Cuban soil. Why didn't he travel to Havana or Santiago, to real Cuba? Why go to a U.S. prison that houses foreigners?
The reason is simple: A visit to the heart of the communist nation would have angered hard-core Castro haters in Miami's Little Havana, thus undermining the myth and symbol of the "American son."
Rubio aside, perhaps the most powerful myths and symbols in American political life are those that established the analogy of King Arthur and Camelot with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. JFK was likened to the idealistic King Arthur who led the Knights of the Roundtable. Arthur served justice, and JFK was seen as having done the same. This analogy can be traced to Theodore White's December 1963 essay in Life magazine about JFK's assassination and his 1,000-day presidency. Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK's widow, asked White to write the essay.
White wrote that JFK's Camelot represented "a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back."
Time and revelations involving adultery, political betrayal and illness have not tarnished the association of Camelot with the Kennedy administration.
Many of us old enough to recall that dark day in Dallas still feel the loss of our gallant hero. The myth and symbol of that era will never die. We long for another magic moment in American history, when the barbarians and opportunists beyond the walls are held back.