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.