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The Tragedy of John McCain
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The Tragedy of John McCain

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen an admirable conservative newspaper fold, a favorite writer hang himself, and a presidential candidate I assumed I’d be voting for tomorrow disappoint me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. As to that dead writer…

The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered — voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: "moral authority," that old cliché, much like so many other clichés — "service," "honor," "duty," "patriotism" — that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though — arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-Span, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings — something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like "service" and "sacrifice" and "honor" might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe.

David Foster Wallace was one of the sincerest members of his generation (which also, by nice coincidence, happens to be Barack Obama’s generation), and an encomium like this should not be discounted for its slightly hedged conclusion. Being wary of a person’s honor and selflessness only means you’ve been on the planet long enough to know what to expect. Cynicism can be a snare, but pessimism is the scar on a broken heart. Still, it did once seem, long ago, as if John McCain would rather lose an election than compromise himself by stooping to the level of his opponent, whose “patrician smirk and mangled cant,” as Wallace so aptly put it, was outdone by his base insinuations as to where McCain’s dark-skinned daughter had really come from. I don’t consider the Vietnam War a great hour for our republic, and I don’t go for flap-flapping nostrums in lieu of moral and intellectual arguments. On foreign policy, I want a president who won’t allow his pragmatism or approval rating to eclipse the necessity of calling a thug a thug and a tyrant a tyrant. On many issues such as capital punishment, gay marriage and the role of religion in the public sphere, I’m to left of the Democratic establishment. I believe the last eight years have been a period of disastrous misrule and demoralization, out of which two unambiguous goods have managed to emerge: the end of Saddam Hussein, and the gasping chance for parliamentary democracy in Iraq. Conservatism at its best means not being a “maverick,” but taking principled stances when popular opinion is ranged against them, putting yourself in the path of history, which you know is likely to mow you down and your feckless little Stop sign. “I am a man who, reluctantly, grudgingly, step by step, is destroying himself that this country and the faith by which it lives may continue to exist.” That’s how Whittaker Chambers, a true patriot of Dostoevskian complexity, explained his choice to become a national pariah rather than allow the dangers of international Communism go unnoticed. If McCain held my attention this year, it wasn’t only because of his Chambers-like willingness to destroy himself for his country in a southeast Asian prison cell long before I was born. It was also because of his willingness to destroy his political career by advocating an unpopular military policy designed to save a country other than his own, one that had been written off as lost to Hobbesian chaos. No revisionism, in light of the squalidness of his general campaign, will alter the fact that, had the surge failed, so too would have McCain in this year’s primaries.  He was at his most presidential in risking his chance to become president. He was also at his most conservative. It would take a Sophocles or a Shakespeare to map the degeneration of a man who had got a handle on being “post-partisan” before it was fashionable or electorally remunerative. If I had to unearth the whole offence, I would say the trouble began in South Carolina, in 2000, when McCain witnessed just how nasty the game had got to be played, and just how badly he lost by choosing not to play it that way. Christopher Hitchens is wrong to say that McCain’s late turn into a merchant of anything-goes innuendo is the result of creeping “senility.” It’s classical political resentment: in his mind, he’s still losing to George W. Bush, just as Nixon thought he was losing to John F. Kennedy—in 1972. I’ve defended McCain where I thought he’d been unjustly or hysterically maligned, but there’s no arguing the point that his choice of a running mate has effectively squandered the public trust. What a blunder, and what a wasted opportunity. Does anyone now think the Republican “base,” whose tendency to froth and foam has led to absurd but familiar analogies to fascism, would have voted Democratic this year had it been deprived of a cultural reactionary with a socialite’s wardrobe? Rush Limbaugh would have declared for the man he calls the “Magic Negro”?  Really?  The bloc McCain needed to persuade was that of independents—his natural constituency—who would have found the combination of experience and integrity too alluring to pass up. We needed an Eisenhower with a steady hand, not a Preston Sturges of “right-wing screwball,” as Leon Wieseltier unimprovably phrased it. Here’s another Greek misfortune of his own making: McCain’s age and questionable health would have been overshadowed by his apparent energy on the stump had his VP been less of a Halloween costume and more of an insurance policy. Instead, these concerns became the stuff of actuarial office bets, and a disturbing aura of death and decrepitude has surrounded him during his final laps around the country.

As for Barack Obama, I’m worried his supporters are too  ecstatic, and not chastened for the challenges he’s about to face, which some of them, judging by conversations I’ve had, can’t imagine to be worse than Hillary Clinton. I find his personality winning, and his intellect impressive. For good reason did Weber define charisma as one criterion of authority. I’ve recoiled in horror at the paranoid and sinister accusations leveled against Obama from the fever-swamps of blogland. Isn’t it amazing how this charming young man manages to divide his time between battleground states and a cave in Waziristan?

When I hear the word “socialism,” I remember the lonely, prophetic radicals who screamed bloody murder about the Soviet Union before liberals and conservatives stopped referring warmly to Uncle Joe. Until and unless the DNC espouses the belief in the government ownership of the means of production, then the rejoinder belongs to the author of Das Kapital himself, who famously demeaned the non-revolutionary varieties of redistributionism by saying, “If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” Actually, some of the most astute observers of this election have been Marxists, or recovering New Leftists. Sol Stern, former editor of Ramparts, has rightly assailed William Ayers as a greater immediate danger to the American education system than he ever was to the Pentagon. Paul Berman, echoing his hero Irving Howe, has reminded us that 60’s left-wing authoritarianism is no alternative to the timeless right-wing brand, and that an unrepentant mad bomber does not need or deserve a burnished reputation or friendship society. In these very pages, Phyllis Chesler has shown how Sarah Palin has brought out the worst in modern feminism, causing cracks in the glass ceiling, and crack-ups in the movement. Tellingly, however, none of these critics has rushed to denounce Obama as the second coming of Abbie Hoffman or Franz Fanon. Why is that, do you suppose, if he’s as recondite and unreconstructed as some of my inbox material maintains?  I find the graying 68ers more reliable in their judgments of sign-posted ideology than the collective wisdom of the National Review editorial board. In fact, one prominent black detractor, Professor Adolph Reed, has made the most salient case against Obama in the Progressive, arguing that the candidate isn’t anything as glamorous as a secret radical, but rather a standard-issue opportunist who talks out of both sides of his mouth and is always looking to a cut a deal to advance his career. What more could we want from a graduate of the Daley machine of Chicago, that noble city? The Saul to consult to understand Obama’s baptism in picaresque urban realities isn’t Alinsky. It’s Bellow. Where I have covered Obama’s policy prescriptions – namely for Iraq – I’ve found him improvisational and half-cocked. He doesn’t confuse Sunni and Shia, but as late as May 2008 he thought Iraqis would bow to the constitutional re-drafting authority of the United Nations, the body responsible for a decade of immiserating sanctions, and which has not had a presence in their country since Al Qaeda blew up its headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. He also labored under a misapprehension that Iraq’s parliament had not, as of last spring, passed laws for de-Baathification, political amnesty, and provisional elections when in fact it had passed them, and he had made the non-fulfillment of these and other “benchmarks” established by the Bush administration a major talking point of his antiwar rhetoric. Nevertheless, Obama shows no sign of letting up on Al Qaeda where it still presents a lethal menace to civilization, and it’s unlikely—given the price he’s had to pay for even suggesting it—that he would now meet with the mullahs of Iran without preconditions. Verbal Vesuvius though his own running mate may be, Joe Biden has seen Russia by standing on its soil, not through magic binoculars; he has a proven record of doing something about genocide; and he has kept abreast of the headlines in Iraq enough to recommend a three-state solution that, however misguided in my view, has been endorsed by Peter Galbraith, a scholar and diplomat who ranks as one of the most serious American experts on Iraqi Kurdistan. Given Obama’s likely appointment of Richard Holbrooke, advocate of Kosovo independence, to a high-level position in his cabinet, there is every expectation that muscular interventionism will indeed have a fighting chance in the next four years. My friend Eli Lake, a prominent neoconservative, has written cogently that Obama’s foreign policy, judging by the people crafting it, would more resemble Ronald Reagan’s than it would Jimmy Carter’s. That means escalating dirty wars and black ops, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we will. Perhaps most important, given the way Americans are said to vote, Obama has demonstrated an equanimity during the financial calamity that, while not a sufficient condition for keeping the country out of a depression, is surely a necessary one.

Nothing would have pleased me more than to have been able to say that of his rival, under different circumstances.

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