November 18, 2007


The Character Factor (DAVID BROOKS, 11/13/07, NY Times)

The first thing that still strikes one about McCain is his energy. In his book, “The Nightingale’s Song,” Robert Timberg runs through primal force metaphors to describe the young McCain. “Being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck,” Timberg wrote.

Prison in Vietnam gave him self-respect and a cause greater than himself, but it didn’t diminish his dynamism. His office in the Senate isn’t tucked away in a tranquil corner of his suite; it’s right in the vortex, and it’s always empty because he’s walking around. Campaigning last weekend in New Hampshire, he was his old restless self, never alone, craving contact, conversation and fun.

Timberg wrote that McCain fought against the system at the Naval Academy as if it were some hostile organism, “as if any compromise meant surrendering a part of himself that he might never retrieve.”

The years and the Senate have smoothed some of his rebelliousness, but he still fights a daily battle against the soul-destroying forms of modern politics.

If you cover him for a day, you’d better bring 2,500 questions because in the hours he spends with journalists, you will run through all of them. Last Saturday, we talked about Pervez Musharraf’s asceticism and Ted Williams’s hitting philosophy, the Korean War and Hispanic voting patterns.

He analyzed the debates he won and the times he was wooden. He talked about his failures as a fund-raiser and said he’d like to pick a running mate with formal economics training because he’s weak in that area. He won’t tell you everything, but there will never be a moment as the hours stretch by when you feel that he is spinning you, lying to himself or insulting your intelligence.

Telling the truth is a skill. Those who don’t do it habitually lose the ability, but McCain is well-practiced and has the capacity to face unpleasant truths. While other conservatives failed to see how corporations were insinuating themselves into their movement, McCain went after Boeing contracts. While others failed to see the rising tide of corruption around them, McCain led the charge against Jack Abramoff. While others ignored the spending binge, McCain was among the fiscal hawks.

There have been occasions when McCain compromised his principles for political gain, but he was so bad at it that it always backfired. More often, he is driven by an ancient sense of honor, which is different from fame and consists of the desire to be worthy of the esteem of posterity.

Other Republicans used to accuse him of kissing up to the news media. But when the Iraq war was at its worst, and other candidates were hiding in the grass waiting to see how things would turn out, McCain championed the surge, which the major Republican candidates now celebrate.

He did it knowing that it would cost him his media-darling status and probably the presidency. But for years he had hated the way the war was being fought. And when the opportunity to change it came, the only honorable course was to try.

The Senator is at his best when he guides himself by what priority would esteem and at his worst when he truckles to posterity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2007 5:08 PM

Brooks should know better about McCain's support for the war - sure, it probably hurt him with the press, but had McCain pulled a Hagel or even a Warner with respect to Iraq, he would have been utterly finished with the GOP electorate. As it is, he is clawing his way back, hoping that he can win or place in NH and repeat in SC and then win in MI. But had he followed Reid and Pelosi on Iraq, he might as well have switched parties then and there.

And McCain's 'closeness' to corporate America (and corporate welfare) is never mentioned. People forget that McCain authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which (along with Y2K) led the binge spending and fiber optic cable boom of the ensuing years. McCain spent a lot of the mid-to-late 1990s flying around on business jets provided by those "corporations".

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 18, 2007 11:17 PM