Sunday, October 26, 2008


There's a lot I don't agree with in David Brooks's column about John McCain today, but he's approaching the truth here when he talks about the McCain campaign:

McCain ... never articulated a governing philosophy, Hamiltonian or any other. In Sunday's issue of The Times Magazine, Robert Draper describes the shifts in tactics that consumed the McCain campaign. The tactics varied promiscuously, but they were all about how to present McCain, not about how to describe the state of country or the needs of the voter. It was all biography, which was necessary, but it did not clearly point to a new direction for the party or the country.

But that's the peril of McCainism/Salterism -- the belief in McCain of myth, a creature of Mark Salter, McCain's principal speechwriter and the co-author of his books. Look at the profile of McCain in today's New York Times -- it describes a McCain who went from this:

...for years he had played down his prison ordeal ("I don't want to be the P.O.W. senator," Mr. McCain once told a reporter. "I don't think it made any change in my basic character")....

to this:

... he began talking about it as a more formative experience. Echoing his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," Mr. McCain described Vietnam as the crucible that taught him the importance of dedication to a cause greater than himself -- a formulation that became his campaign theme....

The son and grandson of four-star admirals, Mr. McCain wrestles publicly with the burdens of trying to live up to their standards of both accomplishment and honor. Contemplating his first run at the White House, he worried about balancing his ambition for the prize with his own sense of virtue, he wrote in "Worth the Fighting For."

After his loss, he professed himself grateful, at the age of 65, for what might be left of his time. "I did not get to be president of the United States. And I doubt I shall have reason or opportunity to try again," he wrote, but added, "I might yet become the man I always wanted to be."

And that's Salter's doing, as Michael Crowley noted a few months ago in The New Republic:

...with Salter's help, McCain began to focus on the theme that redefined his career and helped transform him from a little-known senator to a national celebrity: an intense, moralistic patriotism and fetishization of character.

If Salter hadn't urged McCain to embrace a myth of himself, and hadn't given McCain the words with which to do it, it's unlikely that McCain would be the national figure he is. But that's all McCain's got, except resentment.

Some of that comes from Salter too. Crowley quotes a response Salter sent to a piece at the Huffington Post by a student who'd criticized McCain at a campaign appearance:

... It took no courage to do what you did, Ms. Rohe. It was an act of vanity and nothing more.... [McCain] has, over and over again, risked personal ambitions for what he believes, rightly or wrongly, are in the best interests of the country. What, pray tell, have you risked? The only person you have succeeded in making look like an idiot is yourself. ... Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

When you think like this, you simply can't turn your biographical mythmaking outward -- everyone is inferior to your exalted candidate. That's the difference between McCain's use of biography and Obama's -- Obama wrote two books about himself and, yes, made himself into a bit of a mythic figure, but he turned it outward, urging others to do something significant.

Salter doesn't get it:

All the more galling for Salter is his belief that Obama the candidate is lifting from McCain's oeuvre. Obama has recently described his transformation from a selfish young man who thought "life was all about me" to an adult who realizes "that life doesn't count for much unless you're willing to do your small part to leave our children--all of our children--a better world. Even if it's difficult. Even if the work seems great. Even if we don't get very far in our lifetime." Salter hears in this an echo of McCain's longtime account of outgrowing his troublemaking and self-centered youth to find a higher purpose in serving others. ("I often regret that we didn't copyright 'serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'" he cracks.)

But in McCain's version, it's all about McCain's ability to struggle selflessly, or, at best, the ability of a few special people. In Obama's version, it's ultimately about "you" and "we" -- it's about everybody's ability to help change the country.

That plus a real focus on policy -- you sense that Obama really cares about changing America's foreign policy and tax policy and energy policy -- distinguishes Obama from McCain. Obama wants to change America. The McCain camp wants to put a demigod on the throne.

No comments: