Reading John McCain, part 2

Faith of My Fathers ends with John McCain’s release from captivity in 1973. In the spirit of Huckleberry Finn, McCain declares with a somewhat self-conscious restlessness: “I held on to the memory, left the bad behind, and moved on.” Given the period of time covered by the memoir, McCain does not directly engage any political issue. The closest he comes is in his discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s deficient direction of the Vietnam war:

In all candor, we thought our commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have what it took to win the war. I found no evidence in postwar studies of the Johnson administration’s political and military decision-making during the war that caused me to reverse my harsh judgment.

Reasonable readers cannot disagree.

Despite McCain’s silence on politics per se in the book, one can nevertheless recognize the keystone of McCain’s political career in it. McCain portrays himself as driven by the notions of honor and honesty bequeathed to him like a legacy by his father:

The sanctity of personal honor was the only lesson my father felt necessary to impart to me, and he faithfully saw to my instruction, frequently using my grandfather as his model. All my life, he had implored me not to lie, cheat, or steal; to be fair with friend and stranger alike; to respect my superiors and subordinates; to know my duty and devote myself to its accomplishment without hesitation or complaint. All else, he reasoned, would be satisfactorily managed were I to accept, gratefully, the demands of honor. His father had taught him that, and the lesson had served him well.

It is difficult to discern any underlying or overarching principles in Senator McCain’s devotion to the trademark issues of his recent political career outside the field of national security: campaign finance regulation, liberalized immigration, and balanced budgets. Senator McCain’s belief in his own rectitude in the pursuit of these ends, however, precludes serious reflection on causes and consequences or even, in the case of immigration reform, concern about procedural niceties.

Senator McCain’s occasional deviation from his intensely held beliefs – the natural consequence of political life in a democratic system – elicits an unusual level of self-criticism for a political man. Thus McCain condemns himself for his trimming regarding the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol in the run-up to the 2000 South Carolina primary. Originally McCain had asserted: “As we all know, it’s a symbol of racism and slavery.” In an effort to win the South Carolina primary, McCain hedged. “As to how I view the flag,” he announced in a canned statement, “I understand both sides.” He acknowledged that some people may deem the flag “a symbol of slavery” – McCain’s professed opinion – but allowed that “personally,” he saw the “flag as a symbol of heritage.” Reflecting on his trimming in his subsequent memoir, McCain writes:

I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country’s. That was what made the lie unforgivable. All my heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me.

But is such trimming a matter of cowardice? Was it dishonorable for McCain to acknowledge that the Confederate flag is a symbol of regional pride or Southern heritage to some while acknowledging that to others it is a racist symbol, and publicly to espouse the former view as his own even if his true view was the latter?

In Faith of My Fathers, McCain recounts with no apparent shame the service of his forebears William Alexander McCain and Joseph Watt McCain in the Confederate Army, and notes that only the youth of his great-grandfather prevented his service in the Confederate Army. (His great-grandfather was 14 at the end of the Civil War.) One suspects that McCain well understands the pride some Southerners take in the Confederate flag. Was it a moral or political abomination for him to accommodate his views to theirs for transient political purposes?

One wonders if McCain takes himself altogether seriously on this point. In the past year he has gone through a similar evolution for similar reasons on the subject of the proposed McCain-Kennedy immigration bill.

In “Consistency in Politics,” Winston Churchill considers the career of William Gladstone and Gladstone’s transition (among others) from abolitionist to supporter of the Confederacy. Churchill reflects:

It were a thankless theme to examine how far ambition to lead played its unconscious but unceasing part in such an evolution [of political views]. Ideas acquire a momentum of their own. The stimulus of a vast concentration of public support is almost irresistible in its potency. The resentments engendered by the warfare of opponents, the practical responsibilities of a Party Leader – all take a hand. And in the main great numbers are at least an explanation for great changes.

Churchill counsels that “it is evident that a political leader responsible for the direction of affairs must, even if unchanging in heart or objective, give his counsel now on the one side and now on the other of many public issues.” Churchill applies the maxims of prudence to issues on which “no absolute or natural law” dictates the answer.

John McCain seems rarely to differentiate issues of constitutional principle from issues of practical politics. He is unbending both when he is right and when he is wrong on these issues. To say that McCain is not a party man does not do justice to the case; he tends to subsume practical political questions into matters of personal honor, and occasionally to miss applicable constitutional principles in the process. One might call the tendency Caesarist, except that Senator McCain apparently aspires to be seen exceeding the purity of Caesar’s wife.

Thanks to Jeff Jacoby and Andrew Ferguson for sharing their thoughts with me while I was working on this post. Jeff Jacoby’s thoughtful and admiring Boston Globe column on Senator McCain is “No ordinary candidate.” Andrew Ferguson’s Weekly Standard review/essay on books by current presidential candidates is “Read, weep, and vote.” The speculative views expressed in this post are obviously and entirely my own. (Click here for part 1.)

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