Forget William Ayers. Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, or maybe Gary Cooper’s, is the real American terrorist who blows things up for a good cause in the 2008 election. Barack Obama and John McCain both share an admiration for the rock-jawed, high-minded hero who knew how to get things done without compromising his principles in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Unlike the novel, though, there’s no mention today of the influence of Gertrude Stein.
David Margolick writes about it in the NYT -Papa’s Gift to the Fire-in-the-Belly Crowd:
“Robert Jordan is a left-wing radical, or was modeled after several of them. He palled around with terrorists, or at least people whom many Americans, of his era and beyond, so thought. His specialty is blowing things up for a cause. He is at minimum a socialist, someone so eager to spread wealth around that he’d lose his life to do it.
“Robert Jordan is also honorable, steadfast, selfless, determined, stoic, generous, tolerant, courageous, conscientious, forgiving, altruistic, tender, wise, loyal, independent, taciturn, disciplined, dutiful, patient, exacting, empathetic, idealistic, introspective, charismatic and handsome. No wonder the beautiful Maria falls for him the first time she sees him, and the earth moves beneath the two the first time they make love.
Robert Jordan is the hero of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” an American fighting Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. And despite his radical roots, he’s a literary sensation during this election season. Senator Barack Obama told Rolling Stone that Hemingway’s novel, published in 1940, is one of the three books that most inspired him. As for Senator John McCain, few men, real or fictional, have influenced him as much as Jordan.
Mr. McCain begins his 2002 book, “Worth the Fighting For” (a phrase lifted from Jordan’s dying soliloquy), with an extraordinary paean to the character, whom he first encountered at age 12. Having found two four-leaf clovers, young John pulled “For Whom the Bell Tolls” off his father’s bookcase so he could press them. He and Robert have been together ever since, even in Hanoi. “I knew that if he were in the next cell to mine, he would be stoic, he would be strong, he would be tough, he wouldn’t give up,” Mr. McCain said in a radio interview in 2002. “And Robert would expect me to do the same thing.”
America never embraced the more than 3,000 of its sons and daughters — many of them Communists and more than half of whom were killed — who fought in Spain between 1936 and 1938. Rather, they were persecuted, subpoenaed and passed over for jobs when they came home. As late as 1984, Ronald Reagan said that most Americans still believed they had fought on the wrong side. The few veterans of that fight still alive remain unapologetically to the left; Mr. McCain won’t find many votes among them. “He’s the very antithesis of what we stood for,” said Mark Billings, a mechanic during the Spanish Civil War who now lives in El Cerrito, Calif. (He says he is only guardedly optimistic about Mr. Obama.)
How is it, then, that the radicals’ literary stand-in appeals to two mainstream presidential candidates who agree on little else? Well, take an author who was politically skeptical, commercially savvy and damned good. Throw in a movie starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Add ignorance or amnesia, garnish with the passage of time, and you get a role model that comfortably serves two.
“Both candidates regard themselves as paladins of democracy, and would be reluctant to acknowledge that their ‘hero’ might have been a Communist,” said Paul Preston of the London School of Economics, an authority on the Spanish Civil War. James Benet of Forestville, Calif., who drove ambulances in Spain, agreed: “If Robert Jordan were alive he’d be way to the left of those guys, and he’d be a lot harder for them to admire.”
Hemingway never revealed on whom he based Jordan, who taught Spanish at the University of Montana before heading to Spain. Cecil Eby of the University of Michigan proposed Robert Merriman, who, like Jordan, was a Westerner and a teacher (he had studied economics in Moscow). But Merriman, who was killed in 1938, was never a guerrilla behind enemy lines, as Jordan was. Three others whom veterans speculate could have been models — Michael Jimenez, William Aalto, and Irving Goff — were, in fact, guerrillas; Mr. Goff, a New Yorker who died in 1989, actually blew up bridges, but unlike Merriman, he never met Hemingway. (He once joked that he never met Ingrid Bergman, either; if he had, he said, “I might still be there.”) Large swaths of Jordan, including his “red, black, blinding” temper and his father’s suicide, clearly come from Hemingway himself.
Among the Americans in what later became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, few claimed to be Jordan’s prototype. Most hated the book, in which Hemingway trashed the people leading the fight for the embattled Spanish Republic, particularly the Soviets. In The Daily Worker, Mike Gold dismissed Hemingway as a rich, alcoholic voyeur, “a sportsman and a tourist.” The book represented “a picture so drastically mutilated and distorted as to slander the cause for which we fought,” the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade declared in an open letter to Hemingway.
And they hated Robert Jordan, mostly for what Peter Carroll, author of “The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” called his “extreme individualism.” Jordan was no ideologue. “Nobody owned his mind, nor his faculties for seeing and hearing,” Hemingway wrote. When Jordan dreams of Marx, it is Groucho, not Karl; he fantasizes about taking Maria to see “A Night at the Opera” in Madrid once the fighting stops.
Allen Josephs, a Hemingway scholar at the University of West Florida, says Hemingway created Jordan as a Communist, but changed his affiliation to “anti-Fascist” after his publisher, Charles Scribner, objected. The switch fit Hemingway’s own politics and, not coincidentally, made Jordan more commercially acceptable. (So too, surely, did making him a stately Westerner rather than a New York Jew, as so many of the Americans Hemingway encountered in Spain were.)
Jordan’s willingness to give his life to a cause greater than himself would appeal to anyone from Senator McCain’s military background, said William Braasch Watson, a Hemingway scholar and retired professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And that appeal, Mr. Watson added, would only have grown in Hanoi, where Jordan’s long interior monologues — questioning himself, his character, his future — would have anticipated Mr. McCain’s experiences.
Mr. Watson said he could see Jordan’s appeal to Mr. Obama, too. “Like Jordan, Obama’s a person with a mission and a larger vision,” he said. “He, too, seems remarkably self-contained — somewhat aloof even — and he’s driven to accomplish his goal.”
If Mr. McCain does not win on Election Day, he may have even more reason to identify with Robert Jordan. Part of what Jordan has taught him, Mr. McCain has said, is to “accept your fate, accept your fate.” But no matter who prevails come Tuesday, one winner is already clear: the much-out-of-fashion Hemingway himself. In the political-literary world, he’s this year’s Comeback Kid.
About the iumage: Gary Cooper plays Robert Jordan, and Ingrid Bergman is a blonde Maria in the 1943 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. [Source: NYT/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]