After losing in South Carolina, he announced, "My friends, I lived in a hotel once where there were no mints on the pillow. I know how to take a punch, and I know how to fight back." Asked by Alan Keyes why he doesn't take a stronger position against abortion, McCain replied, "I've seen enough killing in my life, a lot more than you have. I know how valuable and precious human life is, and I will not listen to your lectures about how I should treat this very important issue of the sanctity of human life."
When George W. Bush was asked about religion during a debate, McCain volunteered, "I'm the only candidate for president who's actually conducted church services. In prison, I was named the room chaplain." When his campaign plane got stuck in the mud, he said, "I was tempted to go up there and grab the controls and run that engine and pull us out of the mud."
His web site devotes twice as much space to his military career as it does to his time in Congress. His infomercials are heavy on old black-and-white photos of him as a POW. Someone should ask McCain what he thinks of the weather today. I'm betting the answer would be, "Better than in Hanoi."
The former naval officer deserves great admiration for his bravery in action and his stoicism in captivity. It's hard to imagine any POW conducting himself more admirably than he did. But there is no deed so noble that it cannot be demeaned by incessant attempts to exploit it. And McCain and his advisers have obviously decided that they are not going to pass up any chance to wrap him in the flag.
He's hardly the only candidate to milk his past at every campaign stop. Bill Bradley's sermons about race relations inevitably belabor his years playing alongside real-life black people on the New York Knicks to confirm his moral authority on the subject. George W. Bush claims to have done everything short of turning water into wine during his five unimaginably glorious years as governor of Texas. Al Gore, of course, actually has turned water into wine--and by October will be recalling the time he raised Lazarus from the dead.
But the whole point of McCain's campaign is that he is above such shameless pandering and self-promotion. And because no one wants to challenge a guy who had the fortitude to survive five and a half years of torture and deprivation, he can get away with boasts (accurate though they may be) that, coming from anyone else, would strike most people as downright embarrassing.
For a while, he could even get away with referring to his North Vietnamese guards as "gooks"--a racial epithet stronger than any uttered by John Rocker in his notorious interview. Last week, McCain finally apologized for using the term. What is most amazing here is that the whole matter was almost completely ignored by the national news media. By now, in contrast, most voters probably think George W. Bush is the founder and president of Bob Jones University.
But the Arizona senator doesn't just want us to admire his personal courage. He wants us to believe that the commendable qualities he showed as an aviator and a POW will also make him an excellent president. In fact, the opposite may be true.
What we know about McCain from his military days is that he is defiant, quick-tempered, obstinate, and more than willing to go it alone. Those traits may be a great asset to someone left to rot in solitary confinement, but they could be a huge drawback to someone trying to persuade lawmakers and citizens to embrace his plans for federal policy.
McCain is notorious for screaming expletives at fellow senators who don't see things the way he does, which is one reason only four Republican senators have endorsed him. It's also why his legislative achievements during his 17 years in Congress are almost nonexistent.
Ulysses S. Grant proved definitively that being a war hero doesn't mean you'll be a good president. And there is no record that Grant ever told a U.S. senator he was an (expletive) "jerk." McCain ought to be recognized for his heroism, but the demands of leading a democratic nation require feats of fortitude and self-sacrifice that may be more than he can manage.
Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, February 27, 2000.