News & Criticism

The Real "Real McCain"

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Washington Post columnist David Ignatius today resorts to one of the half-dozen or so classic genres of John McCain op-ed, in this case the "I Know the Real McCain, Which Is Much Better Than the Guy You're Seeing Now." For other versions of the same song, see David Broder, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, Jonathan Alter, and Jonathan Chait, for starters.

Ignatius' argument is as follows:

[I]f you want a reminder of why McCain should be a formidable candidate, take another look at his remarkable 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers." […]

[W]hat makes McCain's account of his captivity truly remarkable is not the heroism but the humility. […]

What's damaging the McCain campaign now, I suspect, is that this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people ? especially a Republican leadership that doesn't really trust him. He should give that up and be the person whose voice shines through the pages of his life story.

Ignatius is right about three things here: Faith of My Fathers is remarkable, partly because of the author-politician's disarming humility in describing his flaws, and the book has important things to tell us about the guy running for president in 2008. But, typically for those intoxicated by the aroma of McCain's heroism, Ignatius misses the real and policy-relevant two-part lesson of Faith, which is spelled out in the book's oft-overlooked concluding chapter.

Part I is about how the skirt-chasing, booze-sucking, plane-crashing individualism of McCain's first 30-some-odd years that Ignatius finds so winning were, in authorial retrospect, condemnatory artifacts of a root selfishness and narcissism, because they weren't (until the Hanoi Hilton, anyway) channeled into a Greater Cause:

Both my confession and my resistance helped me achieve a balance in my life, a balance between my own individualism and more important things. […]

I discovered I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had had before. […]

Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.

This redemption narrative is a key to understanding how such an on-again, off-again individualist wages such consistent policy war against the individual, while simultaneously justifying his iconoclastic excesses when they serve the Cause Greater.

Part II exemplifies how, in the second half of the 1990s, Johnny got his groove back, going from Vietnam Syndrome skeptic to the full-throated Teddy Roosevelt-style National Greatness Conservative he was raised to be:

I once heard the Vietnam War described as "America's fall from grace." Disagreements about the purpose and conduct of the war as well as its distinction of being the first lost war in American history left some Americans bereft of confidence in American exceptionalism ? the belief that our history is unique and exalted and a blessing to all humanity. […]

Surely, for a time, our loss in Vietnam afflicted America with a kind of identity crisis. For a while we made our way in the world less sure of ourselves than we had been before Vietnam. That was a pity, and I am relieved that America's period of self-doubt has ended.

On these, the ideas that matter to McCain most, and that most inform his approach to public policy, he hasn't changed a bit. What's changed is his positioning on red-meat GOP issues he's never much cared about, and the resultant dulling of the journalistic man-crush.

NEXT: In the Raw

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  1. “Disagreements about the purpose and conduct of the war as well as its distinction of being the first lost war in American history left some Americans bereft of confidence in American exceptionalism ? the belief that our history is unique and exalted and a blessing to all humanity.”

    Gee, who could doubt that the U.S. is “unique and exalted and a blessing to all humanity”? That’s why we have the right to drop bombs on anyone we please!

    More seriously, it’s not surprising that McCain unconsciously rearranges U.S. history. No one who knows anything about the War of 1812 thinks we “won” that one. At least the VC didn’t burn DC, eh? And it’s depressing that he compulsively reduces everything to winning and losing.

    If only he’d notice that his mighty hero, Teddy Roosevelt, waved and waved his mighty stick but never got around to hitting anyone. And Ronald Reagan never invaded anyone bigger than Grenada (totally pissing off Maggie Thatcher, by the way, because Grenada was–and still is, I guess–part of the British Empire).

  2. Every time you do a post about McCain’s not-really-a-maverick maverickness, Matt, you should gratuitously link to Danzig’s “Twist of Cain” video.

  3. Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.

    With rhetoric like this, it sounds like McCain is angling for a shot as veep in the coming Reign of the Obamatrons.

  4. “I Know the Real McCain, Which Is Much Better Than the Guy You’re Seeing Now.”

    Other popular subjects in this genre: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore.

  5. Alan,

    Come on, everyone knows the War of 1812 was a draw.

  6. OT, but apparently there’s hydrocarbons on the moon Titan http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/34607/title/Cassini_finds_liquid_ethane_on_Titan.
    Can we please stop calling oil a fossil fuel?

  7. P Brooks: That, or he really wants to stay in the Senate, which fulfills that criteria better than the Presidency. Perhaps it bothers him that he can’t be Senator from the whole United States, not just Arizona.

    This is also an interesting attribution for the feeling of needing others: being broken in a torture camp. I am inclined to think it’s nostalgic bullshit, but what if it is true? Most of us learned this at our mother’s breast, if not on the playground. If it is the truth, I would disagree with the characterization of McCain as being determined to war on the individual. One would expect, instead, great instability in this regard… perhaps a true maverick since one day he’s attacking the individual and the next, jacking him up out of all proportion.

  8. Mutts — You are on to something.

  9. Disagreements about the purpose and conduct of the war as well as its distinction of being the first lost war in American history left some Americans bereft of confidence in American exceptionalism ? the belief that our history is unique and exalted and a blessing to all humanity. […]

    Yet again, the premise that American exceptionalism lies in the ability to kill people in other countries rather than having managed to establish a relatively free market prior the industrial age when most other countries were already burdened with a mercantilist political structure.

    Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.

    To paraphrase: Nothing makes you feel better about yourself than attaching yourself to a great cause, thereby allowing one to pretend that one’s self is made greater because of the affiliation.

    This is very much like that pride and joy one can feel when your ball team wins a game even if you have made absolutely no contribution to the win.

  10. I get it, Matt Welch doesn’t like McCain.

    Considering all the weird shit the Obama wants to impose us, I’ll take my chances with McCain this time around.

  11. The “real” me is about to bend you over my lap and spank your ass raw, Welch.

  12. this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people ? especially a Republican leadership

    Really? I hadn’t noticed. After going all anti-drilling and putting tax increases on the table in his administration, I can’t imagine what more he could do to piss off true-blue (true-red?) Republicans.

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