John McCain’s favorite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is also the title of the new HBO documentary about this man for whom the sun still rises. Like Ernest Hemingway, McCain is more economical than exuberant, more pointed than playful, more direct than discursive, and more immediate than imaginative in his description of America. His writing is stylish, not because of its brevity or its absence of bravado, but because of its streak of absolutism: a credit he shares with Mark Salter, the coauthor of his books, with whom McCain shares all rewards, political and pecuniary.
This is no hit piece, which does not mean McCain can no longer give or take a punch. He is as combative as ever; sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he is—and will always be—a man in the arena. I intend to treat him as such, because all men are flawed human beings. McCain admits to his, and I will not add to his list, though I tend to fault him more for his sins of omission than his sins of commission.
I fault him for not taking control, and not acting like the president he could have been, when he temporarily suspended his 2008 presidential campaign to attend (alongside Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and members of Congress) a White House meeting about a proposed bailout of Wall Street. Rather than assent, and have others mistake his silence as solidarity, he should have released his own plan before he got to Washington and used the occasion—in and outside the Cabinet Room—to explain why he could not support, and would not endorse, a bill written in haste and destined to waste more money than it would ever save. He should have said Obama made things more hopeless than hopeful, because this was a crisis situation—a drama worthy of the Situation Room—and Obama demurred when he should have dissented.
By squandering the moment, McCain sacrificed his own momentum. The candidate of straight talk became the mouthpiece of no talk, while Obama did the opposite. He was McCain’s opposite. Obama was magic, according to one critic, which meant he was not—and could never be—authentic, not if he wanted to be president. He was an illusionist, whose greatest trick was his believability, because he nullified his Kenyan ancestry by talking—and acting like—his Kansan forebears. Such was the claim not of the Right but of the Left: a polemic from a biracial American, about America’s first biracial nominee for president, whose column was an indictment of all whites and an infamy against black individualism.
McCain, in contrast, had no illusions about Obama’s politics. That he did not use them to his advantage is clear. Obama won the election—and was re-elected—not because he fooled the electorate, but because voters fooled themselves. Unwilling to look down the road at home, and having willed themselves not to look and see if we had turned a corner abroad, too many chose rhetorical change instead of the real thing; a majority chose forwardness over moving forward.
The so-called “conservative” commentariat was no better, not when its philosopher king, David Brooks, bulged when he saw the crease in Obama’s pant leg; panting, in prose, like a labradoodle in heat. Like Chris Matthews, Brooks is a leg man, not a legman. No wonder he associates political insight with a politician’s inseam. No wonder there are no creases in Brooks’s brow, neither a ripple nor a ridge, when he speaks without thinking. When he speaks of Sarah Palin’s politics as a disease—the disease of anti-intellectualism and disrespect for facts—which, Brooks says, is at the center of the Republican Party, though McCain could not have known this when he named Palin his running mate.
So great is Brooks’s respect for facts that, despite his regret about having labeled Palin a cancer on the GOP, he now prefers the generality of disease over the particularity of malignancy. From the Gospel of John to the goodness of a fan of John McCain: Greater respect hath no man than David Brooks.
Let us also not forget that other votary of the mind, Andrew Sullivan, the internet’s only gay, self-taught gynecologist. So strong is his obsession with Trig Palin’s biological mother—rather, so determined is he to prove Sarah Palin is not Trig’s birth mother—that Salon ran a piece debunking Sullivan’s conspiracy theory. So much for the intellectualism of this graduate of Oxford and Harvard, as well as Brooks’s degree from the University of Chicago.
John McCain deserves better admirers, just as Sarah Palin should have saner critics. If saner heads are to prevail, they must rid themselves of certain talking heads. Until then, we should brook no moralizing from the indecent and no condescension from the unkind.
I wish John McCain well. His health trumps politics.
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