Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The latest issue of Vanity Fair (February 2007) has a profile of John McCain that is both compelling and discouraging; I recommend seeking it out, or just reading it online.

The article is about McCain's place as the presumed Republican candidate for president in 2008. Much like an equally compelling article about Hillary Rodham Clinton in The Atlantic's November 2006 issue, it blends a discussion of his politics and positions with a narrative of his political life. Regardless of what happens in 2008, it's hard to imagine that he'll be around much longer as a public figure. He's old (he's 70 right now) and his body is riddled with injuries left over from being shot down over Vietnam (which broke both his arms and a knee) and then tortured in captivity for over five years. (The article recounts an anecdote on the subject in which George W. Bush comes across as a little insensitive, maybe even idiotic, but also illustrates the vast differences in experience between the two.)

McCain is portrayed in the article as reasonable. He thinks building a wall across the US - Mexico border is a bad idea, he opposes a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, he's unwilling to impose his feelings about abortion and religion on others, and he supports the Iraq war while being critical of Donald Rumsfeld's handing of it (the latter positions don't seem as incompatible to me as they do to others). If you read the article you may also be struck by how funny he seems.

That's he's got a good sense of humor won't be a surprise to anyone who's seen him in his frequent Daily Show appearances. His most recent appearance, though, speaks to what's discouraging about the article. He was appearing via satellite to talk with Jon Stewart about why he spoke at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (McCain had criticized Falwell for, among other things, his theories about 9/11 being an expression of God's anger toward the United States). Stewart unambiguously told McCain he was disappointed that he was pandering to religious conservatives, and McCain could only sputter a feeble defense.

A problem specific to John McCain is that he has an aura of integrity that no politician can realistically live up to. Beyond that, though, what's alarming here for any republican candidate is the necessity of sucking up to the republican party's right wing, which has disproportionate influence in nominating the general election candidate but is much more conservative than the public at-large which actually elects the president (and, no, I don't think the left wing of the democratic party has a similar influence in determining that candidate). Because he wants to be president, McCain will have to do more of this. There is almost no way for a truly moderate republican (or even a republican who wants to be actually bipartisan) to win while that small faction holds the party hostage.

That this hurdle stands in his way is a big problem for McCain. The general population with whom he is very popular, and who may well elect him president right now, might be turned off in big numbers if he starts acting more like a religious conservative. Religious conservatives are not going to support him or the party if he acts like the ideologically reasonable, irreverent, vodka swilling war hero he seems to be.

If this costs him the nomination we'll also be losing our last chance to elect someone that seems increasingly anachronistic: a politician who resists being stage handled; who recognizes the absurdity of, for instance, insisting there's an equitable "both sides" to debates involving the confederate flag and teaching "intelligent design"; who meets with the press without being rehearsed or primed; and who is willing to go on The Daily Show and answer for his inconsistencies.

It might also mean losing out on a candidate who may want to forge working and/or personal alliances. Another similarity between Vanity Fair's McCain and Atlantic's Rodham Clinton profiles are that they both emphasize their subjects' ability to work and be friendly with not only the opposite party, but (coincidentally) each other. The Atlantic includes this illustrative anecdote about a diplomatic trip to Estonia several members of the senate, including McCain and Rodham Clinton, took,

At a casual dinner with Senate colleagues Graham, John McCain, and Susan Collins, all Republicans, the waiter followed local custom by bringing a bottle of vodka and shot glasses, whereupon Clinton reached over and began pouring; a drinking contest ensued. McCain’s staff seemed pained by the revelation, and declined my request for an interview, because the last thing a Republican presidential hopeful wants floating around in the media is word that he’s becoming booze pals with Hillary Clinton. And McCain denied the story to Jay Leno. But when I recently intercepted him walking through the Capitol, McCain lit up at the recollection. “It’s been fifty years since I’d been in a drinking game,” said McCain, who as a former naval aviator knows whereof he speaks. He added, admiringly, “She can really hold her liquor."

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