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.