Monday, November 03, 2008


When pundits express bafflement at John McCain's willingness to freeze out the press, run a gutter campaign, and pick Sarah Palin as his running mate, I think of incidents such as this one, from Robert Timberg's book The Nightingale's Song. I'll explain why below.

In the summer, with McCain trailing in the polls, his strategists told him journalists were now his enemies -- enemies who wouldn't let him win. McCain learned in Hanoi what you do when you have enemies you can't defeat: You flip them the bird and dare them to punish you. You try to control the hostility by being the one who determines when and how it's dished out, and hope you rattle the enemy by seeming brave/crazy enough to invite abuse. Hence the "Obama Love" Web ad:

And hence the freeze-out of the press, and the lies and distortions of the campaign, which infuriated the press. And hence, perhaps, even the pick of Sarah Palin: McCain couldn't bear the notion that the press would shower Obama with love after Obama's own convention, and was determined to "own the weekend" by announcing a VP pick the next morning that would knock the journalists off stride.


This is why I have trouble with those who see the John McCain POW story as one of unambiguously noble virtues, the kind that prepare a person to lead a nation. I absolutely grant that the endurance of McCain and his fellow POWs was remarkable -- but you have to remember that McCain, the former party-hearty bad boy, actually used his immaturity to endure. And he developed a lifelong sense that, when you're down, you're cornered, and you lash out like a juvenile troublemaker.

McCain's Hanoi story is not a simple parable of easily transferable virtues -- courage and honor. Those things are there, but in a very complex mix.

McCain, when knocked down, lashes out, assuming (hoping) violent chaos ensues. Obama, when knocked down, shakes it off, maybe tinkers a bit with a well-thought-out strategy, and goes back out without letting himself get rattled or thrown off his game. That may not seem as "gutsy" as flipping the bird to a torturer, or to Joe Klein, but it's a hell of a lot more appropriate as the temperament of a person seeking stewardship of a nation.

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