45 Years, 45 Days: Be Afraid of President McCain

For 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason’s April 2007 issue, Matt Welch delved into the frightening mind of authoritarian maverick John McCain:

McCain’s dazzling résumé—war hero, campaign finance Quixote, chauffeur of the Straight Talk Express, reassuring National Uncle—tends to distract people from his philosophy of government, and his chumminess with national journalists doesn’t help. There is a more useful key to decode how he might behave as president. McCain’s singular goal in public life is to restore citizens’ faith in their government, to give us the same object of belief—national greatness—that helped save his life after he gave up hope as a POW in Vietnam.

Although Bill Kristol and David Brooks coined the phrase “national-greatness conservatism” in a 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, the sentiments they expressed and the movement forefathers they chose would have been right at home in one of the Chamber of Commerce speeches about the virtues of patriotism that McCain gave in the 1970s. Kristol and Brooks wrote that “wishing to be left alone isn’t a governing doctrine” and “what’s missing from today’s American conservatism is America.” McCain, then an ambitious pol-to-be working the rubber chicken circuit as a famous ex-POW, would deliver inspiring sermonettes about the value of public service and restoring America as an international beacon. All three men would eventually come together on such National Greatness projects as the “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East, trying to drive money out of politics, and, not least or last, getting John McCain elected president.

Like Kristol and Brooks, McCain regards Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as political idols; like them, he never hesitates in asserting that government power should be used to rekindle American (and Republican) pride in government. Unlike most neoconservative intellectuals, however, McCain is intimately familiar with the bluntest edge of state-sponsored force. A McCain presidency would put legislative flesh on David Brooks’ fuzzy pre-9/11 notions of “grand aspiration,” deploying a virtuous federal bureaucracy to purify unclean private transactions from the boardroom to the bedroom. And it would prosecute the nation’s post-9/11 wars with a militaristic zeal this country hasn’t seen in generations.

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