Service Charges

John McCain's fetishization of service may sound harmless, but it's representative of his anti-individualist politics

The musical choices at major-party political conventions are often much more revealing than the organizers intend. The Democrats in 2004—including delegate Carole King herself!—thought "You've Got a Friend" was a helpful selling point for their man Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), because Lord knows if there's one thing all us voters need in the White House it's a caring pal. In 2000, a gruesome "Drums for Tipper" Gore revue failed utterly to make Al's kissing pillow seem hip, but rather served to remind us all that the would-be president was a censorious sonofabitch whose wife utterly lacked irony-dar.

The 2008 Republican Convention, after a day of "country first" hurricane postponement, kicked off its prime-time schedule Tuesday night with, well, some country first, in the form of Aaron Tippin's slicker-than-ethanol jes'-folks Nashville ditty "I Got it Honest." (Sample lyric: Roll out of the sack every mornin', head on down to the mill // Give 'em all I got for eight, 'cause that's the deal.)

It was the kind of professionalized, downwardly aspirational music that could only come from a guy who, in lieu of mill-work, has been spinning canned patriotism into gold records for 18 years now. And it was the perfect warm-up act for the Republicans' night of dressing up their own political ambitions in the noble garments of "service" and "putting country first," preferably with a down-home, little-guy twist.

So it was that lawyer/lobbyist-turned-actor-turned-senator-turned-Paul Harvey-substitute Fred Thompson, in a speech successfully glorifying the life of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said about vice presidential pick Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, that, "Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit."

Good line! Also, John McCain has been making close personal friends among Washington pundits and media big shots since even before he got shot down over Hanoi Harbor, has appeared on Meet the Press at least 52 times, and has lived most of the past six decades with one foot squarely inside the Washington cocktail circuit.

But McCain has also lived a great man's life, and as last night's policy-lite characterapalooza aptly illustrated, he is running this year on the Great Man theory of politics. As the Weekly Standard will tell you, personal virtue trumps any ideology, especially if the virtuous agrees with the Standard's ideas about National Greatness. As Bill Clinton said in Denver, sometimes it's tempting to go with a great-man Candidate Y, even if you disagree with half of what he says. And as Joe Lieberman said last night, "You may not agree with John McCain on every issue. But you can always count on him to be straight with you about where he stands, and to stand for what he thinks is right regardless of politics."

Always? By now, keeping up with McCain's 21st century flip-flops—in other words, his instances of not standing for what he thinks precisely because of politics—requires either a calculator or a partisan heart. But there are two facets of the candidate's persistent moral exhibitionism that are ultimately more interesting—and worrying.

First is that John McCain himself has warned us, repeatedly, that he has let his own massive personal ambitions knock him off the virtuous path of Country First. "I have craved distinction in my life," he wrote in his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For. "I have wanted renown and influence for their own sake. That is, of course the great temptation of public life. Few are immune to its appeal. The desire to be somebody has driven many a political career much further than the intention to do something. I have never been able to conquer it permanently, but I have tried." Another quote from the same book: "All lives are a struggle against selfishness.... I've made plenty of mistakes since [Vietnam]. And I have many regrets. But only when I have separated my interests from the country I've been privileged to serve these many years are those regrets profound."

Second, and far more impactful than the newsflash that a politician confuses his own campaign with the health of his country, is that whenever John McCain talks about "service," "a cause greater," and "putting country first," you can bet that in the very next breath he is liable to say something expressly hostile about the individualistic pursuit of happiness, a hostility that translates time and time again as policy proposals that—surprise!—emphasize the common good at the expense of the individual.

"I believe it is every American's duty to contribute something to the common good," he told Johns Hopkins graduates in May 1999. "With every new Dow Jones record something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.... Now we have a new patriotic challenge for a new century: declaring war on the cynicism that threatens our public institutions, our culture and, ultimately, our private happiness. It is a great and just cause. And service in it will be an honor."

Nowhere is McCain's militaristic conception of citizenship more on display than in his writings on Teddy Roosevelt, the interventionist and empire-building president whose video tribute at last night's convention was greeted mostly by stony silence.

"In the Roosevelt code," McCain writes in Worth the Fighting For, "the authentic meaning of freedom gave equal respect to self-interest and common purpose, to rights and duties. And it absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country's sake.... He distrusted leading financiers of his day who put profit before patriotism.... He respected the role business conglomerates played in America's emergence as a great economic power, but he also understood that unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism would crush competition from smaller businesses.... He fought the spirit of 'unrestricted individualism' that claimed the right 'to injure the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit.'... He sought not to destroy the great wealth-creating institutions of capitalism, but to save them from their own excesses."

Roosevelt is McCain's great hero, the man he would most attempt to emulate in the White House. Yet his short and frantic life contains warnings McCain has never seemed to heed. Aside from the fact that the aggressive, Navy-led imperialism that McCain admires so much was fueled in part by outright racism (T.R. once wrote, for example, that "the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages"), the grand tragedy of Roosevelt's Bully Boy career was that, at some point, he lost the ability to distinguish between his own personal ambitions and the general fortune of the country.

"It would be a mistake to nominate me," a White House re-seeking T.R. said in 1916, "unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic." Ninety-two years later, the grandson of one of Roosevelt's sailors is veering perilously close to the political narcissism he's long warned us about.

Matt Welch is the editor in chief of reason and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Sweet Jesus! Is McCain on National Service again?

  • Elemenope||

    McCain's Fetishization

    Two words that, when brought together, spell doom for healthy sexual fantasies everywhere. You could be minding your own buisnes, thinking about some hottie or hunk, and then [BAM!], McCain's Fetishization intrudes.

    And then you can't get him out. No sirree. There are no safe words with McCain.

  • Bingo||

    I was listening to Glenn Beck the other day and someone called in and was going on about how he's a big McCain supported because McCain can lead us to become the great nation God intends us to be.

    So apparently there is an audience for this.

  • T||

    So apparently there is an audience for this.

    So what? There was apparently an audience for Mike Huckabee. I had one lady tell me, in all seriousness, that she was voting Huckabee because we needed a spiritual godfather. WTF? Pray to Jesus or get a horse's head in your bed?

    So, yeah, there probably is an audience for McCain's nonsense, but is it enough to matter?

  • ||

    You could be minding your own buisnes, thinking about some hottie or hunk

    I didn't realize you swung both ways, LMNOP. You like the pole and the hole.

  • Elemenope||

    So, yeah, there probably is an audience for McCain's nonsense, but is it enough to matter?

    He polls at 40+% of likely voters. So that's, what, ~80 million people?

    Do 80 million people matter? To me, that number is one that I'd be a little concerned about.

  • Elemenope||

    Epi --

    Methinks you need a re-education on the interpretation and usage of pronouns. ;)

  • ||

    Oh, it was the GENERIC you.

    (it was a Strangers With Candy reference, by the way)

  • Dagny T.||

    McCain's Fetishization
    Two words that, when brought together, spell doom for healthy sexual fantasies everywhere.


    Elemenope,

    I saw Mike Doughty on Monday at Bumbershoot, and he joked that the crowd was thinking about Joe Biden, and said that he was neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but Joe-Biden-o-sexual.

    Now there's an abstinence-only image for ya.

  • Orange Line Special||

    Here's an idea: promote the book *after* the election. Unless Reason has the Commie concept of helping BHO become prez in order to make things so bad people will just be begging for a libruhtarian solution.

    Say, want to see why I no longer call myself a blogger? Take a look at this example of those who've cheapened the medium.

  • ||

    Having read all of the interviews you gave for $500 when you Blogged across America, I regret that you no longer consider yourself a blogger, Lonewacko.

  • Elemenope||

    (it was a Strangers With Candy reference, by the way)

    That's why I didn't get it. Strangers with Candy fell into the spaces between shows I had time for. I think at the time I was enjoying Kids in the Hall, and found the few Strangers exposures I did have were lacking in the type of humor I appreciate.

  • ||

    Q: What does it take to get an anti-immigrant fanatic to shill for John McCain?

    A:...I don't really have to write the answer, do I?

  • Elemenope||

    Now there's an abstinence-only image for ya.

    Yech. Here's what I don't get. He's a guy who you'd have to be high to do, and yet he cracks down on drug use! He's working at cross-purposes with his own interests!!! ;)

  • Les||

    Say, want to see why I no longer call myself a blogger?

    nobody cares

  • ||

    Say, want to see why I no longer call myself a blogger? Take a look at this example of those who've cheapened the medium.

    You're right... that "Lonewacko" blog you've linked to is absolutely dreadful.

  • Dagny T.||

    He's a guy who you'd have to be high to do, and yet he cracks down on drug use!

    It's the forbidden aspect of drugs that gets him off. Post-legalization, he'll be forced to seek something even more taboo.

    Ew. My brain needs a shower now.

  • ||

    found the few Strangers exposures I did have were lacking in the type of humor I appreciate

    If you like KITH then you should like SWC. It takes a few episodes to get the feel for the characters, but that's a given for any character driven show. It's one of the most wittily offensive shows out there, has Stephen Colbert doing some of his best work, and allows no redeeming moral messages to creep in, ever (unlike, say, South Park).

  • ||

    What tends to scare the crap out of me is people's apparent need for an Emperor-God-Savior in the form of a President. The Presidency wasn't supposed to be such a powerful position. Doesn't anyone think about or fear the likely possibility that if we continue shoveling all this power on the presidency that at some point in the future a terrible "crisis" will arise and we will suddenly find ourselves in a dictatorship? I mean, WTF, do you think that it won't happen?

  • Naga Sadow||

    LONEWACKO!!!!!!!!!!! Now that that is out of the way . . .

    Epi,

    Did you just besmirch "South Park"? FOOL!!!

  • ||

    Did you just besmirch "South Park"?

    Shades of grey, Naga. Shades of grey.

  • ed||

    The word "sacrifice" is almost always incorrectly applied. Enlisting into the army is not a sacrifice. Getting drafted is. Nothing that is done voluntarily is a sacrifice, unless one has exchanged a value for a lesser value. And if he does it voluntarily, what do I care? Just don't tell me I have to pick up trash in the park four hours a week without pay in order to get my car registration updated. Then I'll get a little testy, guaranteed.

  • jasno||

    I miss the Ruskies... Why, when I was a kid you had people on the right praising individualism and freedom, as if they actually believed in it. You'd think some guy who actually fought the commies would know better, but what can I say, he's getting a little kooky in his old age.

  • ||

    I honestly cannot believe anyone is taking McBush seriously. I just cannot believe it.

    Jess
    www.anonymize.us.tc

  • Jerry||

    This Country First theme is just utterly fascist. I can't understand how they get away with it.

  • ||

    I'd have less problem with the whole "America First" thing if I didn't suspect that it meant "we need to interfere with more and more countries."

  • Cool Cal||

    Does anyone recall that Obama makes similar, if only slightly muted calls for public service at the expense of cynicism and self-interest. You could take McCain's quote and read it, pretty much certain that either candidate might have said it with a straight face.

    Somebody ... am I wrong about this? I know McCain's speeches are always laden with the assumed insinuation of military service (though I'm not sure we should necessarily assume he's explicitly calling for a reinstatement of the draft), but both are inherently the same message, "You're all a bunch of selfish bastards, and I'm gonna put you to work."

  • MAX HATS||

    The word "sacrifice" is almost always incorrectly applied. Enlisting into the army is not a sacrifice. Getting drafted is. Nothing that is done voluntarily is a sacrifice, unless one has exchanged a value for a lesser value.



    So for the majority in the military who choose to enlist into a low paid, high stress job when they could be doing better on one if not both those fronts in the civilian world, it is still a sacrifice, no?

  • Orange Line Special||

    Jaybird writes: Having read all of the interviews you gave for $500

    Thank you for remembering! That's a reference to this post about a BloggerConference I went to and made fun of. It's still ComedyGold almost five years later.

    Fun fact: that's the last time Insty linked to me.

  • jimmy||

    wasn't that sarah palin i saw carrying a sign saying "Secede From Country First"?

  • Jello Noodles||

    "The word "sacrifice" is almost always incorrectly applied. Enlisting into the army is not a sacrifice. Getting drafted is. Nothing that is done voluntarily is a sacrifice, unless one has exchanged a value for a lesser value."

    I'm not really following.

    A sacrifice can broadly denote anything relinquished regardless of intent, sure, but to sacrifice implies a voluntary forfeiture of some kind by definition.
    Religious sacrifices demonstrate personal conviction in a belief, and I see no reason to treat the word differently in the context of patriotism.

  • ||

    I've served 21 years in uniform, and I would prefer to serve with volunteers than draftees.

    Is enlisting in the military a sacrifice? In and of itself, no, it's merely a choice, and one that should not be made lightly or without forethought. Serving in uniform does demand sacrifices, however. Those who have served usually put those sacrifices down to the results of a choice thtey made. Those who haven't served, perhaps they chose not to because they didn't feel they could, or should have to make a choice that might demand a sacrifice.

  • ||

    This Country First theme is just utterly fascist.

    People here the name Deutscheland Uber Alles, (Germany Above All), uber alles in der weldt, and think it's a statement that Germany should be above all of the other countries.

    Actually, it's a call to Germans to put Germany first in their priorities, above their "states," their towns, their families, their religions, themselves, and other loyalties.

  • ||

    "The word "sacrifice" is almost always incorrectly applied. Enlisting into the army is not a sacrifice. Getting drafted is. Nothing that is done voluntarily is a sacrifice, unless one has exchanged a value for a lesser value. And if he does it voluntarily, what do I care? Just don't tell me I have to pick up trash in the park four hours a week without pay in order to get my car registration updated. Then I'll get a little testy, guaranteed."

    Along these same lines, and with all due respect to McCain's military service and willingness to put his life on the line to defend this country, doesn't a sacrifice, by definition, cease to be a sacrifice when you expect/demand something in return for it (i.e. the presidency)?

  • ||

    Little known fact: Hit & Run commenter "joe" is actually Adolf Hitler, posting from an undisclosed bunker in Argentina.

  • ||

    I know that because I'm actually a very old and less cranky Winston Churchill.

  • Rhywun||

    FYI - "hottie" is equally applicable to men and women.

  • ||

    Rhywun,

    I don't think so.

  • ||

    ...so I tell him, "I'm promoting my underpants to OVERpants."

    Fucking Cowboys.

  • Rhywun||

    I don't think so.



    See for yourself.

  • ||

    Ah, you remembered the video. So awesome.

    In the year 2014, when the major networks finally begin to go under, CBS will, in a last ditch effort, run a prime-time sitcom about Hitler. Like Hogan's Heroes but with more Nazis.

  • ||

    Rhywun,

    Who are you, Michelangelo? Men can't be hot. It's illegal and in violation of natural law, to boot.

  • ||

    McCain's military service and willingness to put his life on the line to defend this country,

    defend hist country? The dude was fighting half way around the world, so it is any thing but "defend".

  • ||

    ProL, gay guys call other guys hotties all the time, and women call guys hotties too. I was just busting LMNOP's balls. Now, if a chick got called a hunk, that would be interesting.

  • ||

    Well then, they are confused. Women have exclusive rights in hottiness. It's in the Bible, dude.

  • Gene Simmons||

    And lo, when the Bitch of Sodom bent over, verily did I forget my name.

  • Paul||

    He polls at 40+% of likely voters. So that's, what, ~80 million people?

    Do 80 million people matter? To me, that number is one that I'd be a little concerned about.


    Pollster [on phone]: If you had to vote today, who would you vote for?

    Voter: Uh, hang on... [in background] 'get that diaper off your head and put it back on your sister'... uhh, Mccain, I guess...

    Pollster: Mccain?

    Voter: Yeah, Mccain... [background] Did you hear me, Mortachai, off your head! [back on phone] Yeah, Mccain, what was the question again?

    Pollster: Thank your for participating, sir. [click]

  • Rhywun||

    Women have exclusive rights in hottiness.



    Only on libertarian message boards and other places where cavemen gather.

  • ||

    It's all true. In any event, I now only recognize my wife as a hottie.

  • zoltan||

    Michaelangelo? Yeah, right. Those statues are the epitome of steroid use.

  • ||

    I also recognize Pro Lib's wife as a hottie.

  • ||

    I just thought that, right?

  • ||

    joe,

    How would you like to wake up with an alligator in your bed? I can arrange that.

  • B||

    Funny how the other candidate wants to make national service mandatory, yet you attack McCain on the subject instead. I guess the sales of the book you are constantly flogging on this site must be slow.

  • B||

    "defend hist country? The dude was fighting half way around the world, so it is any thing but "defend."

    So I guess the people who fought in the European theater in WWII weren't really defending the United States? I think Roosevelt may have actually laughed when the Germans declared war on us.

  • ||

    Pro Libertate,

    If you do arrange that, give me a yell first, would you? I'd like to get some HD footage of that.

    -jcr

  • ||

    Now, if a chick got called a hunk, that would be interesting.

    Well, I've seen a couple of women in my time that I might describe as a "blob", or a bit "chunky", but "hunk" didn't really seem to apply.

    -jcr

  • ||

    John C. Randolph,

    I learned on these here pages that our young joe has an aversion to God's creatures. Like sharks, alligators, snakes, that sort of thing. Especially in ones home in Massachusetts, where one should be safe from such critters.

  • a||

    "It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole...that above all, the unity of a nation's spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual...we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow man." -- Adolf Hitler

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