McCain’s handlers have positioned him as the anti-Bush. Think back to the South Carolina campaign eight years ago, to Rove’s sleazy attack. Consider that since then, McCain has opposed the Administration here and there. Anti-Bush should be a good fit for McCain.
However, anytime Bush has needed a hero to hug on the hustings, McCain has been Johnny on the spot. That as much as anything is why I think the “straight talk” is largely bullshit. If you’re a straight talker, you talk that way to everyone, President or Pope or peon. All the time.
Almost as worrying right now, and far more worrying for the future, is McCain’s behavior over the past several months. He loses focus. He forgets. He stumbles. These are danger signs for anyone. For a man in his seventies, they are even more severe. And for a man seeking the Presidency, they are downright terrifying. Josh and his crew at Talking Points Memo have put together a highlight reel. Maybe it ought to be called a lowlight reel.
You watch video clips of his appearances, and hear variations of his standard pitch, “My friends, I will look you in the eye, and I will not lie to you.” Does he even know when he’s lying and when he’s telling the truth? I wonder if McCain thinks he’s telling the truth so long as he’s saying whatever his handlers have told him to say. He often does not remember from one interview to the next what he said, and when he remembers what he said, he seems uncertain what it meant. Consider a story in today’s NYTimes; check the whole article if you have the time.
Senator John McCain is so quick to pick up his gold-colored cellphone to solicit advice — from senators, campaign consultants, even the stray former deputy press secretary — that aides, concerned about his tendency to adopt the last opinion he has heard, have tried to cut back on the time he has to make calls.
Mr. McCain is known to sign off on big campaign decisions and then to march off his own reservation. Two weeks ago, he publicly disagreed with his own spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, after she used a line of attack against Senator Barack Obama that he had approved after careful strategizing within his campaign. Ms. Hazelbaker raced out of the Virginia campaign headquarters and refused to take Mr. McCain’s calls of apology, aides said, and a plan to have Republican members of Congress use the same critical line about Mr. Obama’s foreign trip fell apart.
Out of his hearing, Mr. McCain is called the White Tornado by some people who have worked for him over the years. Throughout his presidential campaign, he has been the overseer of a kingdom of dissenting camps, unclear lines of command and an unsettled atmosphere that keeps aides constantly on edge.
It’s not hard — not for me, anyway — to conclude that McCain’s people have done all the managing, and that McCain himself has degenerated into an occasionally-coherent, easily-manipulated dummy.
Okay, I’m reading between the lines, and I’m getting away from the intended story line, which was the similarities between Bush and McCain. (Although limited intellectual capacity, no matter how achieved, is an appropriate frame for the President as well.) But let me get on with the comparison.
The most obvious similarity is the “ain’t-I-cute frat boy” glow which radiates from both men. Maybe it’s genetic, but I think more likely it’s an acquired characteristic. Look at their backgrounds, and you can see where they both got it.
- Bush, of course, is the definitive “smirking chimp” of college BMOC days. Not everyone sees McCain that way; publius at Obsidian Wings argues that “When he’s wearing his moderate humorous hat, he can be quite charming (just watch his Daily Show appearances).” However, I side with Gore Vidal, who said in an Esquire interview that “I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him.”
Admittedly, that’s a highly subjective evaluation. Let’s turn to some more-nearly objective items in both men’s backgrouds, the similarities or parallels which make them alike.
- First of all, ignore the military stuff for now. That will only confuse the issue. Go back to the earlier days.
- Bush comes from old oil money. He never had to work, never had to clean up his own messes, never had to worry about the future. McCain comes from old Navy aristocracy. With father and grandfather as four-star admirals, he had just as big a silver spoon in his mouth as W did. No worry, no sweat.
- Bush went to Ivy League colleges and McCain went to Annapolis. And both were legacy admissions. Could Bush could have managed degrees from Harvard and Yale without family money and ties? The same applies to McCain. He’d never have made it into the Naval Academy if he’d had to rely on his grades and his behavior.
- Both graduated the way they got in — on family connection. Both were big-time party boys; Bush chasing primarily the booze, and McCain primarily the broads.
- Neither of them speaks well in public, not well in the sense we expect of top-shelf diplomats and national leaders. Each of them is described by friends as the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.
- Neither of them is particularly bright, but each of them is shrewd.
- And crude.
- And ruthless.
- And fiercely ego-centric.
This is where we get to the deep and dangerous analytical part of the essay. Each man can point to a dramatic incident, an experience which molded him and made him who he is today. For McCain, it was years as a prisoner of war. For Bush, it was shedding his sinful past and finding God (the Christian one). Each of those experiences may have been the profound epiphany it’s been described; only a low-minded curmudgeon would think otherwise.
Let me, for a few moments, don my low-minded curmudgeon suit. And let me acknowledge that what follows is a blend of fact, rumor, speculation, and inference. The conclusions are my own, and — at least with regard to McCain — I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.
Bush first, because it’s an easier situation.
Playboy runs wild for thirty-five years or so, drinks heavily and maybe tries a few illicit drugs. When his father gets to the White House, playboy becomes even more obnoxious, with foul-mouth tirades against anyone who upsets him. Then, when it’s time for the playboy to put away his toys and assume the mantle of responsible adulthood, his father takes him to visit Billy Graham. Billy G takes the young man for a walk on the beach, drives the demons out of him, and returns him to Dad as a straight-walking, God-fearing gentleman.
It could happen. There are, if you accept the scripture prescribed by Billy G, precedents. It also is possible that the whole thing was a con job. For that too, there are precedents, in and out of scripture. Still a third possibility has been suggested, and I give it considerable weight. It is this. The Playboy is convinced, not that he has found God, but that God has found him. He is God’s Favorite, Destiny’s Darling, the Anointed Saviour. In that role, clearly, it is impossible for him to make a mistake, because everything he does is the will of the Almighty.
Maybe the conversion on the Road to Baghdad was genuine, but I’m betting against it. Or maybe Bush genuinely believes he was chosen by the Almighty to save Her/His Chosen People. (That would be us, I suppose.) That’s a better fit, but I still favor number two: the conversion was shuck and jive. Three-card Cheney. Bush thinks he’s the One And Only Genuine Gazipp because he has surround himself with people whose livelihood depends on their ability to say, with a perfectly straight face, Yes Sir, You Are The One And Only Genuine Gazipp.
The McCain scenario is more difficult, and more delicate; it requires challenging one of the sacred articles of American lore: the POW as hero. And an immediate disclaimer: I know nothing about Navy planes of the sixties, or about POW camps. I have no doubt that McCain was shot down in a plane over North Viet Nam, that he was captured, and that he was held in Hanoi for five and a half years.
However, I do know something about military intelligence, and about medical treatment of trauma victims. The first element of my — let’s call it a conspiracy theory for the moment — of my conspiracy theory is this: The North Vietnamese, even though they speak a strange language and live way far away, did have, even forty years ago, radios. They also had radio operators who could understand English. It was possible, therefore, that they were able to intercept radio messages between American planes. It was possible, in fact, that they knew, before McCain hit the ground, that they had shot down the son of a four-star admiral.
There’s a picture you can easily track down on the Internet, showing a whole platoon, at least, of swimmers in the water where McCain landed. They are obviously doing their best to rescue him, to keep him safe.
Also on line you can track down pictures of McCain in the North Vietnamese hospital. He does not appear to be suffering from anything other than the injuries he received being shot down. And again, you can find pictures of him returning home when he was released. He looks cheerful, fit, and rested — not at all like a man who has been mistreated for the previous five years.
- If you want a different sort of account, of a different sort of POW experience, from an altogether different sort of man, take a look at what the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote about his experiences — experiences corroborated by a whole library of other accounts.
What I am saying is this. Yes, he was a prisoner of war for five and a half years. But as to what he did in that time — and what was done to him — we have only his word. His narrative. It looks to me, from the available evidence, as if his time as a POW was much different from that of most such prisoners. It could have been courtesy, or charity, or maybe the North Vietnamese had long-range goals in mind.
Okay, a couple more specific and well-grounded slams at McCain.
Amy Silverman has been writing for and editing the Phoenix New Times for fifteen years, and has followed the ups and downs of McCain for as long as he’s been in politics. She does not like the man, and summarizes her opinions in an essay in the current issue. The title and first few paragraphs give you a sense of what she’s saying.
Postmodern John McCain: the presidential candidate
some Arizonans know — and loathe
I once stood in John McCain’s kitchen and watched Cindy cook eggs for their kids.
It was still dark outside when I arrived at the McCains’ north-central Phoenix house on a winter day in early 1994. I remember terra cotta tile and overstuffed plaid couches and wondering whether Mrs. McCain regularly got up before dawn to make breakfast.
I was following her husband around for the day, for a story I was working on about his role in Arizona Republican politics. I’d been gathering examples of McCain’s strong-arming, and I needed some face-time with the senator, to ask about that and also to describe his personality. That day, we drove to Tucson so McCain could sit in as guest host on a local talk-radio show.
For three hours, with the same piece of gum in his mouth, McCain took calls from listeners. There was no set topic. I got the anecdote I needed for my story in the form of a call from “Rosemary,” an obviously elderly woman who wanted to express her concern about nuclear proliferation.
“You make some excellent points, Rosemary, and I wish that everybody were as concerned about the issue as you are. And I appreciate the call,” the senator told her. Then he announced a station break, took off his headphones, and leaned over to me (his BFF for the day) with a Grinch-like grin on his face.
“I believe that Rosemary has a bumper sticker that says ‘Visualize World Peace,'” he said.
And finally, in response to the McCain attack on Obama as “elitist,” here are a few items collected by the ABC political blog, Political Punch. It’s called “The Elitist Celebrity Quiz.” See if you can identify the Presidential candidate referred to in each item. [Clue: it’s the same one in each case.]
- Which presidential candidate hosted Saturday Night Live?
- Which one had cameos on “24” and “Wedding Crashers”?
- Whose wife secretly got her pilot’s license and owns a jet?
- Who is pals with Warren Beatty?
- Whose daughter is friends with Heidi from MTV’s The Hills?
- Whose wife once told Vogue, explaining the purchase of a 7th or 8th house, this one a beach house, “When I bought the first one, my husband, who is not a beach person, said, ‘Oh this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go. Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn’t get in the place. So I bought another one.”
- Whose family credit cards have been known to ring up more than $500,000 in charges in one month?
If you answered all those questions correctly, congratulations. You are now ready to vote.
[Correction, of sorts]
I’ve seen several accounts which agree with McCain’s version of events. Part of my discomfort with the narrative may come from the form rather than the substance: McCain’s books — all of them, apparently, as well as his major speeches — were written by alter ego Mark Salter. Although Salter appears to write the speeches McCain wants to deliver, his prose style seems to me so unlike what we can infer of McCain’s that it is practically in opposition. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I mistrusted the link between voice and story, and so mistrusted the whole narrative.
Beyond that, there is still an aura of — perhaps the most suitable word is strangeness — about the McCain biography. Little of what we know about the genuine McCain (presuming that this late in the game there is such an animal) from before Hanoi, or from after Hanoi, corresponds to the selfless and altruistic hero image from his years in captivity. But even if he was the hero his supporters believe him to be, that is not — in my mind — a significant reason to elect him to high office.