A McCain Festschrift, Featuring Sarah Palin

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As the chances for an up-or-down Senate vote on the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy dwindle, here is a collection of reader messages about John McCain, who became the most visible face of Republican opposition to DADT's repeal. I had mentioned earlier the shift from the seemingly big-tent, coalition-building, non-party-line McCain I remembered from the 1980s to today's bitter partisan, and speculated on possible reasons. Below and after the jump is a giant compendium of reader attempts to answer the question of why John McCain changed -- or to challenge the idea that he has changed at all.

To start off, a naval veteran, on why the Palin choice made the difference:

>>I was fascinated by your blog re Senator McCain. As a retired Navy officer, I've always respected, and sometimes idolized, the Senator - with the exception of the perturbations I've seen in his public demeanor and personal life.

Nonetheless, I was willing to cast my vote for him in 2008 (as many times as I could, here in Texas). I thought he would be the leader who had the cred to right the path that went so terribly wrong during the Bush administration.

Then he made a scandalously irresponsible choice for running mate, a fact that you chose not to mention. Or he was simply deranged. That's a mystery to me. But it has forever changed my impression of his ability to judge and provide leadership. And I believe it cost him the election.<<

Another disappointed Navy voice:

>>I read your post on John McCain and could not help but wonder why he's changed.

When I was a Midshipman at USNA (1994 to 1998), McCain was THE American hero of all living graduates, at that time, save Admiral Stockdale and Admiral Lawrence. And while both the Admirals have since passed, they have been enshrined on the Yard with their very own statues facing each other. As for Senator McCain, his legacy has not yet been determined by those who decide how to memorialize heros around the Yard.

But my larger point about your post is related to John McCain as a product of his time(s). He's lived many different phases of his life in many different ways. But I think the ways in which he has decided to live his present life very much mirrors the 50 year cycle model of America suggested in George Friedman's book The Next 100 Years.

I think, as Friedman suggests, we are in the middle of the presnt 50 year cycle and the building tensions that lead up to the inevitible re-set are taking form. John McCain is precipitating the ensuing tumult.<<

McCain as Cedro Willy:

>>I voted for McCain in the 2000 Ohio primary to try to stop what I believed was a frightening prospect: George W. Bush. I was right in my motive and also right in my choice at the time because I perceived McCain to be a person who would choose the right thing over the popular thing. He's sunk to such horrible lows in recent years that I shudder when I think about that vote of mine. My pop psychology view is that he wants love and is looking for love in all the wrong places. I think you are old enough to remember The Congress of Wonders. They had a character named Cedro Willy--a hapless orphan who would periodically shout: "LOVE MEEEEEE!" John McCain is Cedro Willy all over again.<< [I had in fact never heard of 1960s group Congress of Wonders, but the Cedro Willy clip, which is the #3 item here, is very weird, in the ways described.]

It's just age:

>>I hate to over simplify, but I think McCain is just plain, old, bitter. People who have gone through a lot less than he did have ended up in psychiatric units or homeless, and /or permanently "broken". In addition, his later years were spent attempting to cope and comprehend what Bush was doing to him during the election - presto...

He's simply mean and bitter these days - that seems to appeal to a large part of our country. Somehow it now equates to patriotism.<<

It's about being entitled:

>>It's always risky trying to do "armchair psychological analysis" (particularly when one is not a psychologist), but it seems to me that much of McCain's political posture in the last 2 years is due to his evident bitterness over his loss in the 2008 Presidential election campaign.

From the beginning of that campaign through its end, McCain appeared to think that he was entitled to the Presidency, by reason of his long service to the country, his sacrifice as a prisoner of war and the fact that his opponent did not have near his level of experience and had not paid his dues. McCain never understood that the Presidency isn't supposed to be a reward.

His demeanor and public comments since the election all suggest the same thing-that he bitterly resents that he lost to a fellow he thinks is inferior to him. His comment the other day in which he referred to the DADT repeal as tied to a campaign promise by an inexperienced candidate is incredibly revealing of McCain's perception. Never mind that the repeal of DADT has been a significant Democratic policy point for years, that there has been enormous discussion of this issue on the Democratic Party's side for a long time; in McCain's mind, this is ultimately only about experience vs. inexperience.

Although I was never a McCain fan, there can be no doubt that the man has destroyed whatever reputation he ever had in politics. Unfortunately, what he is likely to be best remembered as is the worst sore loser in recent American Presidential election history.<<

After the jump, more about the shock of losing to "lesser" foes, the complex effects of his great ordeal, and other possible factors.

The "acrid taste" of these defeats:

>>I think McCain's decision to throw away his reputation -- deserved or not -- can most easily be explained by Occam's razor: losing two hard-fought presidential campaigns have left him bitter and angry. Some might say crotchety. I had the opportunity to watch the 2008 McCain campaign very up close and personal and I am convinced that he views himself as the central character in an epic narrative that was destined to culminate with the presidency. After all, he was the son and grandson of two famous admirals. When it became clear that politics, and not military greatness, was in his future, that would seem to be the logical progression.

Anyway, seeing his chances for fulfilling this dream disappear during the 2008 campaign undoubtedly left a particularly acrid taste in his mouth, given his personal enmity, demonstrated on a number of occasions, for Obama. I think it's very likely that he decided after the campaign that he would not help the president accomplish any of his legislative goals, his past positions be damned. Of course, the primary challenge from the right didn't help things either, and his desire for self-preservation forced him to adopt new, GOP primary voter-friendly stances on a range of issues. But it's arguable that he would have flipped on those issues anyway given his unwillingness to work with the president.<<

A parallel with Hubert Humphrey?:

>>I had thought about the unfortunate transformation of John McCain for some time and thought I'd share my own theory with you: I think it comes down to the effects of personal ambition and how it can transform people in political life. Sen. McCain has obviously been an extremely ambitious person who, more than anything, wanted to become President of the United States. He tried to do that in 2000 by being himself, and lost badly to a lesser man. He then began a major transformation, and between 2000 and 2008 did everything he could to ingratiate himself with the conservative wing of his party to get the nomination--only to lose to some young whippersnapper for whom he had no respect. His personal contempt for Obama comes though clearly in Heilemann & Halperin's "Game Change." To want it so badly, and to be humiliated by someone for whom he held such low regard, had to have a transformative effect. Moreover, in the process of transforming himself from the 2000 maverick into the 2008 Republican nominee, he lost his bearings. Ambition will do that.

In my opinion, the closest analogy in the modern era might be Hubert Humphrey, who only got the 1964 VP nomination by selling out the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation in Atlantic City. That ingratiated him with LBJ, got him the nomination and the position, and the chance to run for President later. But his "reward" for putting his ambition ahead of his beliefs was go down in flames in 1968 by supporting the Vietnam War and alienating most of those who had been his biggest supporters in his earlier years.<<

The varied effect of McCain's great ordeal:

>>Regarding your post about the mystery of McCain --- I wasn't around DC in the 80s, I've never met the man personally. But from my great distance, one thing strikes me --- everybody assumes a person must have great inner reserves of character to have withstood what he did. But I don't know why one couldn't get through such a great trial by being a stubborn, tetchy little bastard who resists because unwilling to give his captors the satisfaction of breaking him. You don't necessarily have to be nice to be a hero, nor to lack vanity, and the very character which gives you the stubborness to resist the strongest vise might equally make one petulant and petty once broken.

After all, what did McCain ever want to be President for, other than to burnish his own greatness? His history shows that his chooses his convictions according to which will win him the most admiration, though I doubt he'd ever admit as much to himself. For a man who basks only in glory, why bother to conceal bitterness in defeat?<<

'He is a bully':

>>I think that what you and your readers have said about Senator McCain has a great deal of merit. Unfortunately, there may be another, darker, pop-psychology interpretation: John McCain is a bully. I remember how he "came alive" in Summer 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. He seemed to relish the possibility of conflict with Russia. I wonder if when he chose Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential running mate, he was on some level impressed by her own eagerness to get into conflicts.

In this sad interpretation of McCain, John was beaten up badly by George and Karl (Bush and Rove) in 2000. Indeed, as he said to George's face, "you should be ashamed." Now John is back in the schoolyard, looking for weaker kids to bully. And from a bully's viewpoint, the Democrats make great targets. In particular, as it becomes harder to persecute women and minorities, homosexuals make great targets for bullying. This may explain, in part, why the Senator now stands foursquare against repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. He may not think of his behavior in these terms. But to me, this interpretation rings true. DADT is a fight, and Johnny likes fights, and fights with the Democrats are fights he can win.

Interesting thoughts about the mystery of John McCain. I think both McCain and Bob Dole maintained integrity in the public mind and their own because of their military service, and something went out of each of them as their party made respect for service come to depend on political contingency. Recall the swiftboating of Kerry and the "purple owies." Said Dole: "Three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of. I mean, they're all superficial wounds."<<

More on the effects of his ordeal:

>>You pose the question of how John McCain could have shifted into the crabby, constricted politician we see today.

I have some speculation about this question. As a practicing psychologist who works often with traumatized people, I have myself often wondered about the effects of McCain's long period of confinement and torture while a prisoner of North Vietnam. People with severe experiences of trauma often dissociate -- that is to say, find themselves numbing or compartmentalizing so that outwardly they seem not to be scarred by their experiences; however they might manifest more subtle effects, effects that their families note well. Other people feel every knock and jerk, real and imagined, and often withdraw, from society or into addiction, rather than endure what seems to be the over-stimulation of life on this earth. These are generalizations of course, but they are not conscious choices. It's as if our neurological systems themselves go one way or the other. I would refer you to Judith Hermann's canonical work, Trauma and Recovery, out of Harvard.

Early on, it seemed to me that McCain was one of those people whose numbing defenses served him well. They allowed him to get his life going again (albeit by jettisoning one wife); they allowed him some dignity and the respect of many. I don't know what might have caused these defenses to collapse (running the presidential race?), but the curmudgeon we see today looks now like a short-fused, irrational, easily irritated, non-empathic, over-stimulated and exhausted victim of trauma that sadly is the sequelae of a long ordeal of torture and imprisonment.

You will appreciate no doubt that these observations are pure speculation. But I can't help thinking....<<

The "Dole Disease:

>>Reading your article about the senior senator from Arizona, I share your wonderment at the change in him since his 2000 loss to then presidential candidate Bush. I began warning friends when he embraced the persons and ideals of some of our loopier evangelical types. I referred to his change as "Dole Disease", and suspect that at least in part his radical changes result from feeling spurned by the electorate when it was "his turn, dammit!" I thought Dole showed this same sort of behavior, though not to the degree McCain has done. Then again, Dole soon after cashed out to gain his next fame as a pusher of ED pills. "Feeling a loss of manly power, try these!"

What prompted me to write this morning was a politician who came to mind as example of what you describe. Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller, I think, qualifies. The past 11 years, I've been in Georgia and as part of relocating, I took time to study the past & present of the place so I'd understand it better. I don't think his change has been quite as radical as that of George Wallace, with whom most of my life in Alabama was spent. As a teenager in Birmingham, I remember him meting out his anger on the legislative delegation and voters around Birmingham by halting Interstate Highway construction 20 miles outside of the city, thus choking and causing bypass for its industry, which was already dying, and its people. If I correctly recall, the population of the city is the same as it was in 1950. Much of this is directly attributable to George.<<

Similarly about Zell Miller, in response to my request for other examples of public figures who grew angrier and narrower as they aged, rather than the reverse:

>>As a long-time resident of Georgia (and getting longer all the time), your description of John McCain immediately brought to mind an example of someone who seems to have traveled the very trail McCain is now on - former Georgia Senator and Governor Zell Miller.

Miller started off as a garden-variety Southern Democratic populist. While governor he established the Hope Scholarship to send Georgia students (including my daughter) to college in the state at almost no cost if you had good grades, led Georgia to create one of the very first statewide virtual libraries back in the 1990's, spoke on behalf of Bill Clinton at his nominating convention, etc. Then, inexplicably, he started getting more and more right-wing, turning his back on lifelong friends and becoming what can only be described as vicious: denouncing the Democratic Party, speaking at a Republican nominating convention, supporting George W. Bush in 2004, doing voiceovers for Republican gubernatorial candidate commercials, and contributing to Fox News. Miller's Wikipedia entry is full of examples of how he has changed and how nasty he became.

Many of us who had known him for years couldn't understand how this change had happened. We still don't understand it. But when I hear McCain go off like he did on Robert Gates over DADT, I can't help but think of Zell Miller. If this keeps up, I'm afraid they'll deserve each other.<<

A counter-example:

>>And Lee Atwater is another in the ranks of the expanding rather than contracting oldsters.<< [Of course Atwater never became an oldster, dying at age 40 of brain cancer, but late in his career his tone changed in the way the reader suggests.]

Others who grew narrower:

>>I can name 3 public figures that have changed like McCain-Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, and Alan Simpson. They all seem to have gotten bitter.<<

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, a nominee:

>>Courtesy of the Golden Horde, Tom Watson. Forgot about him. Iconoclastic populist dreams of leading a multiracial agrarian movement, loses an election, and goes on to endorse the KKK. Amazing. There is some writing to be done about the psychology of politicians and what popular rejection does to (some of) them.<<

Comparisons to Henry Wallace -- and Obama:

>>1) The public figure who popped into my mind when you asked for analogies was Henry A. Wallace (another idealist who came very close to the presidency and supposedly spent the last years of his life cursing the gods for getting it wrong);

2) W/o denying the importance of the South Carolina primary or the Iraq war on McCain's psychology, the pivotal event your readers missed, imho, was his sponsorship of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, the Republican base's complete rejection of both it and him, and his subsequent volte-face. Before this reversal I think McCain genuinely saw himself as the sort of heroic figure who took unpopular stands, persevered, and eventually won the respect (and even support) of his enemies. What McCain "learned", I think, is that the bastards often win, and this broke his moral compass.

3) I can see something similar happening to Obama. His faith in bipartisanship seems quixotic. He must be expecting some sort of payoff--what if it never comes?<<

It is about soul:

>>You wrote a short column about Dick Cheney with a similar observation. I can't remember it all, but part of it alluded to growing older and having a soul....  Perhaps McCain has lost his soul? I also think though that fundamentally, he is a damaged person emotionally. He was before his POW days, and certainly after. He's just been lucky in building a myth about him and sealing all the exits, most notably ALL Pentagon files on POW's and MIA's. To me he started to crack during his recent Presidential campaign, and he's gone downhill ever since. Sad......but it's hard to be sympathetic to a person of privilege but without grace toward others, especially those who don't share his views, or those who have the least amongst us.<<

There's more, but for now that's enough. Maybe these all get at the mystery; maybe they all miss it. And maybe there is another act still left in John McCain's public evolution.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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