McCain as Victor Henry
Back in March, I compared Hillary Clinton to Herman Wouk’s immortal character Captain Queeg, a comparison which I still feel works pretty well. She insisted she could win the Democrat nomination weeks after it was obvious her fight was hopeless, she told obvious lies without hesitation, and she displayed some odd personality quirks throughout the campaign (remember her frightening cackle, or her collection of temporary local accents?). When faced with the fact she had lost the race, she was quick to blame her failure on an anti-feminist plot. Hillary wasn’t crazy (neither was Queeg, by the way), but she clearly was deluded by her quest for power, and her delusions hurt her.
John McCain is the opposite. His whole stock-in-trade is his fundamental fortitude and decency. If Hillary is Queeg, then McCain represents Wouk’s other famous captain, Victor Henry (featured in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Nobody really gets excited about McCain’s politics—while he leans right, he really isn’t a conservative, and doesn’t have much of a grasp of many important issues. For example, he doesn’t seem to understand economics very well; he wants to cut taxes, which is commendable, but doesn’t know how the country will pay for his hefty tax cuts. His position on social issues is also odd—he is strongly pro-life, and his record bears that out, but he doesn’t seem to care about appealing to social conservatives.
The primary reason McCain won the nomination was because voters trusted him. They actually thought that his promises of “bipartisanship” and “change” would be kept. They believed that he really would reach across the aisle and seek to solve the country’s problems while seeking no credit for himself. They looked at his service in Vietnam and believed that the fortitude he displayed in his Hanoi prison cell would translate to his presidential performance. McCain ran on his image, not his ideas—and won.
So, does this point have any relevance other than proving that I, like many other people, enjoy reading Herman Wouk? Actually, it does. Conservative pundits agonize over McCain’s every gaffe, fearing that every one is a sign of imminent dementia, while liberals gloat over all of McCain’s missteps, seeing in McCain another Bob Dole to run against.
However, I think that a strong case could be made that none of these gaffes matter. Most voters aren’t really paying attention to McCain’s positions. No one really cares that McCain doesn’t understand the economy, or that he flip-flopped in his support of Bush’s tax cuts, or that he supports amnesty for illegal aliens. Some people support McCain because he is not Barack Obama, or because they automatically vote Republican. But McCain’s base, the people who got him the nomination, supports him because they believe he is a man of honor.
McCain may be as honorable and courageous as his supporters think he is. It is clear that McCain is unafraid to take controversial positions—his support of the Iraq War was political suicide until the surge started to work, and his support of amnesty was equally damaging during the early parts of the 2008 presidential campaign. But honor is not necessarily an essential qualification for president. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were both decent men (at least until Carter became an anti-Semitic crank), and they made poor presidents. Franklin Roosevelt was a scheming, manipulative liar, yet he did manage to stop Hitler’s Third Reich. Winston Churchill was an impetuous, warmongering egomaniac, yet he managed to pull Britain through World War II. Abraham Lincoln ruthlessly cracked down on any form of dissent, jailing dissidents and ignoring their right of habeas corpus. Honor is essential for a good soldier, but is not always found in strong presidents. Honor sounds good, but cold, scheming ruthlessness usually gets the job done. McCain’s principles may get him into the White House—but they may not help him much while there.