In the Presidential election of 2008, I was largely in sync in Barack Obama’s policies and platforms. (No Catholic can ever be completely so, of course.) I liked what he said about war, race, education, science and technology, international relations, terror and torture, and civil rights. But even in spite of that, when I cast my ballot on that November 4th, some part of me wasn’t voting for Obama. It was voting for Kenneth Yamaoka.
Yamaoka is, not the star exactly, but certainly the central figure and enigma about whom Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, by Kaiji Kawaguchi, revolves. The star of the book, if you must know, is Takashi Jo, cub reporter for the Daily Maicho Shinbun in Japan. Takashi, it’s revealed early on, is also Yamaoka’s son, born of an intense relationship the candidate had on an Okinawa airbase en route to Vietnam. The family drama surrounding Takashi and Yamaoka’s family is pure potboiler material, meant to hook in Japanese readers who couldn’t care less about labor disputes or racial tension.
But the real meat of the book is the political machine. Yamaoka doesn’t even become the official Democratic candidate until the fourth of the five thick books. (Average page length: 473 pages.) The majority of Yamaoka’s struggle is–and stop me if you’ve heard this one before–vying in the primaries with the beneficiary of the Clinton legacy, though since Eagle dates back to 1997, that comes in the form of an Al Gore manque rather than a Hilary isotope.
As Yamaoka wends his way through debates, press conferences, and backroom deals, the ideology and argument on display is simplified and idealized, to be sure. Just as Riichiro Inagaki slowly and painstakingly lays out every rule and exception of American football for Eyeshield 21 readers coming to the sport for the first time, Kawaguchi couches political points in Eagle heavily in metaphors. There’s Yamaoka conning Al Noah into playing chess as the two of them trade sound bites about the intertwining issues of education and immigration policy. There’s George Tuck (Kawaguchi’s Dick Tuck stand-in) screening a campaign ad showing an inner-city kid being left behind on the side of a road by a station water, sports car, and space shuttle until Yamaoka pulls up driving a bus to ferry him “to the 21st century.” There’s Yamaoka speaking privately to Takashi amidst a backdrop of scenes frim his Vietnam tour, claiming that he’s “still in the jungle” when it comes to the bare-knuckled world of politics.
But for all their simplicity and digestibility, these are still recognizably American touchstones and issues. Kawaguchi didn’t phone this one in: according to a short interview in the back of volume 2, he engrossed himself in American political literature, leaned heavily on Japanese experts in the field at top newspaeprs, and spent months touring the country for himself and taking “what eventually amounted to 50 photo albums’ worth of pictures” for reference. All that work, translated by equally fervent research junkie Carl Horn, paid off.
So when the story goes to New York, where Yamaoka began his political career, and deals with a local politician who seems to have no political agenda beyond peddling influence and keeping himself reelected, it feels real. When Yamaoka struggles to keep the support of the military while not compromising on his hardline antiwar stance, it feels real. When the campaign heats up after the Democratic National Convention and Yamaoka is shadowed by fringe kooks leaving threatening messages and worse, it feels real.
And most importantly for those of us who voted for Obama two years ago, when Yamaoka lets the reader down, when he tosses aside a principle or two if it helps him jockey for position, when he’s shown to be only a man after all, that feels real too. When you start to notice that Yamaoka’s victory is built as much as anything on savvy media manipulation, demographic jockeying, and one grim-jawed get-out-the-vote organization, it rings unfortunately true.
But if you knew back in 2002 that this is who Yamaoka was, it took some of the sting out of it when you helped elect him six years later.