The Elusive Senator McCain
Perhaps McCain is still living off his extraordinary ability to butter up the press; never having met him, I cannot tell. Yes, he has been a man of independent views who defied his own party on campaign finance reform, tobacco issues, immigration, and (indirectly) the appointment of conservative judges. Today’s New York Times, summarizing his career, repeats his favorite talking point, that this has enabled him to build coalitions across the aisle. (It also confirms that he has both befriended and enraged Senators on both sides of the aisle.) But how much has all this actually accomplished? Yes, in 2005 the “gang of fifteen,” of which he was a member, headed off the “zero option” that would have tried to push through judicial nominations by majority vote, but now McCain is promising to appoint more justices like Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alioto. The immigration bill—a middle-of-the-night deal if ever there was one, crafted without any legislative hearings at all—was a failure. Campaign finance reform was a limited success, but public financing has probably been overtaken by events, including Obama’s extraordinary success, now. Even Barack Obama (who really has kept his promise to stay away from personal attacks to an extraordinary degree) gave McCain credit in at least one of the debates for standing up to President Bush on torture, failing to note that McCain had eventually caved in completely. And his other platform plank—his opposition to earmarks—is disingenuous in the extreme. Like any other longstanding Senator, McCain has gotten where he is by favoring certain friendly contributors, from Charles Keating back in the 1980s to certain Indian gambling tribes whom he has favored against rivals to Donald Drummond, an Arizona developer whom he helped acquire part of Fort Oard, California. He has played the game and played it with gusto.
A recent article in Rolling Stone—which painted a very negative portrayal of McCain’s entire life without having significantly to stretch any facts—suggests that McCain, like George W. Bush, has spent much of his life trying to measure up to his father and grandfather, both distinguished Navy admirals. (The article made it very clear that McCain, even if he had never become a POW, did not seem likely to rise to the top of the Navy.) More generally, he faced one of the dilemmas of his Silent generation. McCain was already nine years old on V-J day and would never have the opportunity to fight in a great crusade like the Second World War. His own war, Vietnam, turned out badly for both himself and the country. It is yet another unconscious vindication of Strauss and Howe that McCain’s favorite President is Theodore Roosevelt, who was about as old on the day of Appomattox as McCain was in 1945, and who developed a simililarly pugnacious temperament to compensate. McCain concluded one of his autobiographical works by saying that although he might never become President, he could still become the man he always wanted to be—a rather odd comment, one should think, for a man of over 60 who had come quite close to reaching the top of his new profession. He has used these memoirs repeatedly to apologize, both for his behavior as a POW (which I do not see as anything to be ashamed of) and some of his campaign tactics, and I wonder whether he will do the same in a new book in a year or two about this campaign. And to me, the same kind of uncertainty about himself comes out almost every time he faces the camera during this election. He knows what he is supposed to sound like—firm, experienced, decisive—but he can’t seem to do it convincingly. His hint of a smile suggests self-love, his lowered voice tries to give new gravity to whatever he is saying, but all this says to me that he is playing a part—and not playing it very well.
McCain reminds me of another Silent Senator, a fictional one—a New York liberal, played by Alan Alda, the title character of the excellent 1979 film, The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Not only are there similarities in their personal lives—both have a Silent first wife, and a Boomer lover, played marvelously in the movie by Meryl Streep—but both are constantly torn between a vague sense of wanting to do good and the political imperatives of every situation, which in both cases, apparently, have been explained by Boomers. (In Joe Tynan’s case the Boomers are his lover and his chief of staff, a wonderful character; in McCain’s they are the Rove acolytes who have taken over the campaign and overruled him on point after point, most notably regarding the choice of a Vice-Presidential candidate.) Tynan eventually betrays his principles by betraying a friend, an aging southern Senator played brilliantly by Melvyn Douglas. McCain has betrayed his supposed principles by succumbing to the worst, McCarthyite type of negative campaigning in an attempt to discredit Barack Obama.
Yet in one respect McCain’s thinking does seem to have become clearer—frighteningly so. McCain initially won the heart of the media partly by refusing to talk demagogically about Vietnam. Indeed, the funniest story I ever heard about him came from an old friend, a journalist, who heard it from McCain himself during the 2000 campaign. McCain was reminiscing about a long day on the campaign trail during his first run from the Senate, which was managed by his mentor Barry Goldwater. Talking in 2000 about his own run for the Presidency, Goldwater declared, “You know, John, if I had won in 1964, you never would have had to spend all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.” “You’re right, Barry,” McCain replied. “If you had won, I would have spent them in a Chinese prison camp.” That was both funny, insightful, and implicitly skeptical about the whole Vietnam enterprise—but those days are gone. Two or three Sundays ago, Gary Trudeau devoted his strip to a conversation between two soldiers in Iraq. The superior explained that McCain wanted the United States to stay and win in Iraq to prove that we could have stayed and won in Vietnam—and that since we could have won, we didn’t really lose. And Trudeau did not pull that idea out of the air. McCain had said almost exactly that during the first debate with Barack Obama.
And I'll tell you, I had a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a woman stood up and she said, "Senator McCain, I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son's name on it."
He was 22 years old and he was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, Matthew Stanley, before Christmas last year. This was last August, a year ago. And I said, "I will -- I will wear his bracelet with honor."
And this was August, a year ago. And then she said, "But, Senator McCain, I want you to do everything -- promise me one thing, that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain."
That means that that mission succeeds, just like those young people who re-enlisted in Baghdad, just like the mother I met at the airport the other day whose son was killed. And they all say to me that we don't want defeat.
A war that I was in, where we had an Army, that it wasn't through any fault of their own, but they were defeated. And I know how hard it is for that -- for an Army and a military to recover from that. And it did and we will win this one and we won't come home in defeat and dishonor and probably have to go back if we fail.
That was a rather extraordinary statement, but one of enormous strategic significance. The U.S. Army was never defeated in Vietnam—as long as it remained it could fight the enemy to a bloody standstill. In the same way, the U.S. Army and Marines have now shown they can at least reduce violence in Iraq to manageable levels—as long as they stay there. What neither the Army nor the rest of the U.S. government could do it Vietnam, however, was to create a South Vietnamese government and army that could deal with the enemy—and they, not the US, were defeated after we left in 1975. In the same way, our goal of a unified, allied and democratic Iraq is likely to fade away after the inevitable American withdrawal there, but that will not be the fault of the American military, but rather of the civilian leadership that embarked upon a hopeless war from the beginning. We do not need another President who does not understand that—or who uses the rawest of emotions, a mother’s pain, to try to rally support for a war he favored for years before 2003, and that has done enormous harm to the United States abroad and at home and wreaked disaster in Iraq itself.
Barack Obama, it seems, also had an opportunity to express his feelings about the war to General Petraeus himself during his visit last summer, and here, reportedly, is what he said after Petraeus made the case for remaining in force for as long as was necessary to secure stability. "You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument," he said. "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security." That prism, he made clear, indicated the necessity of beginning a substantial withdra
Obama has been very clear about the war from the beginning: that it was for many reasons a mistake to undertake it, a mistake which no possible outcome can vindicate. A war, sometimes, is like a marriage: the critical decision is the one to get into it. If it goes badly there are endless ways to rationalize, to hope for a better future, or to try to make it work; but if the decision was a bad one from the start, nothing will work. Obama seems to understand that, and that, I think, is the kind of President we need now.