Sunday, September 21, 2008

(it's not dementia)

A lot of you look at John McCain -- especially the John McCain who apparently couldn't place the name of Spain's prime minister in a recent interview -- and say, "He's senile," "He has dementia," "He has Alzheimer's."

I don't buy it -- I've had one relative (an aunt) who developed Alzheimer's-like memory loss, and her behavior wasn't anything like this (it was more a sort of pained, helpless groping as words she was sure she should be able to access simply eluded her). On the other hand, I have an extended family in which several members are older than John McCain, and none has dementia or, as far as I can tell, anything more than "senior moment" memory loss. (Approaching fifty myself, I have a bit of that, too.) McCain is 72, an age at which this kind of memory loss is far from inevitable; he seems more like my older relatives who still have all their faculties.

So why did McCain struggle with that interviewer? I think James Traub, writing about Annapolis for today's New York Times Magazine, explains it:

The Naval Academy that John McCain entered in 1954 featured the same "lock-step curriculum" that his father and grandfather studied. All students took the exact same courses, with a heavy emphasis on engineering. There were no majors. The department of English, history and government, which included the whole of the humanities and the social sciences, was known by the nickname Bull. The classroom, in any case, scarcely constituted the core of the midshipman experience. McCain hardly mentions classes in his memoir, "Faith of My Fathers." In a novel of the academy, "A Sense of Honor," James Webb, class of '68 and now a senator from Virginia, begins one of his few descriptions of classroom life as follows: "The instructor, a balding man in a frumpy brown suit, was telling them how to determine the water pressure on the side of a ship's hull at various depths." The one character who actually loves learning and thinking, a hapless plebe named John Dean, is widely treated as a pitiful specimen.

John McCain was the son and grandson of men shaped by this institution, which didn't in any way reward intellectual curiosity or a love of learning. Then he was shaped by it. And prior to Annapolis he was a troublemaker and an indifferent student, and had a temper.

So he's never liked learning -- not the way overachievers like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton seem to like it. And he was a legacy at school, not a striver like Obama or Clinton. I'm sure he felt he could often coast.

His temper, his orneriness, and perhaps his endurance of physically painful hazing at Annapolis (Traub discusses that as well) helped get him through his years in Hanoi. But apart from those nightmare years, he's had a life in which he relied a lot more on charm than smarts.

So maybe he couldn't make out the name Zapatero -- and maybe it didn't even vaguely call up anything in his memory bank. I don't think that's dementia -- I'm not sure he's ever had Zapatero in the forefront of his mind. I'm not sure he's thought it was worth bothering to think about Zapatero. So he blew it off, assuming he could just wing the rest of the interview with the talking points on Latin America he had at hand.

That's not a sign of dementia. That's a sign that McCain is more than a little bit like George W. Bush.

No comments: