Last night I mentioned that in his mid-70s -- a stage of life in which many public figures seem driven to moderate their sharp edges, to broaden their appeal, to reflect on their standing in history -- John McCain has been moving the other way, toward a narrower, harsher, and more irritable tone. Reactions:
1) I asked for a comparable example of this late-in-life movement. Several readers quickly came back with the same suggestion, Al Smith. As one put it:
>>The first name that comes to mind for me is Gov. Al Smith, the Dems' 1928 nominee, who, after decades of fairly progressive policy positions, started moving far to the right in 1932, when the Democrats didn't renominate him. He ended up being a harsh critic of the New Deal, a member of the conservative American Liberty League, and something of an embarrassment to the Democratic party, or at least its Northern component, during his final 12 years.<<
2) As he mentions on his site, Ta-Nehisi Coates quickly thought of John C. Calhoun, another good choice. To me an interesting connection is that both Smith and Calhoun came close to but didn't reach the presidency. (Smith was crushed by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election, Calhoun failed early in his run for the presidency in 1824, wound up as vice president under both JQ Adams and Andrew Jackson, and then bitterly resigned after policy splits with Jackson.) Larger point: losing a race for the presidency must be so embittering and overwhelming an experience that it is a miracle that people who come close, but lose, recover as often as they do to lead relatively positive and productive lives. Think of: Herbert Hoover after his overwhelming rejection; Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale; Barry Goldwater in his post-1964 career; Gary Hart; recent one-termers Ford, Carter, and George HW Bush; and, yes, Al Gore. No one has ever called him an easy-going or "obviously at peace with the world" personality, but to function at all after Bush v Gore....
After the jump, a "losing in 2008 made all the difference" message from a reader.
3) Nominee from many people: Dick Cheney, as explained previously here.
4) Many people have written to say: What is this McCain "mystery" you are talking about? He's been the same person throughout his career. What about the Keating Five? What about his long-standing opposition to Martin Luther King Day? Aren't you just reflecting the faddish fascination with McCain from what he once memorably called "my base" - the national press? He's always been thin-skinned, a glory hog, etc.
I never covered McCain on the campaign trail and was not part of his press-corps base. I've had almost no dealings with him at all in the past 15 years. My positive impressions date to his early days in Congress in the 1980s when I would listen to him or interview him about defense issues and foreign policy, memorably including America's efforts to re-establish relations with Vietnam. At a time when post-Vietnam War emotions inside the U.S. were still terribly raw, McCain was a notable voice of reconciliation after those differences -- and a brave and persistent advocate for restoring relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. His advocacy of campaign reform also struck me as being genuine -- and, although resented by some of his colleagues as sanctimonious, driven to significant degree by his humiliation at being involved in the "Keating Five" scandal. He was not perfect, since no one is -- but in most of his career until the 2000 presidential race, when he was attacked from the right by Karl Rove and G.W. Bush, to me he seemed mainly to project an open-minded, better-humored, bigger-tent approach to public life than most other people.
I wrote about the scurrilous Rove/Bush attacks on McCain, about which McCain memorably, chillingly, and accurately said to Bush's face in a debate, "You should be ashamed," in this article back in 2004 (search for "ashamed"), with a later summary in this post (scroll to the end). That's why I think there's been a change, and that it's sad.
A reader writes with this interpretation of McCain. The opening disclaimer is important -- this is pop-psychology -- but a lot rings true.
>>Trying to decipher the riddle that is now John McCain is probably nothing more than pop-psychology, but I'll give it a shot. The obvious insight is that McCain is now bitter. For years, he conducted himself as an amiable and bi-partisan war hero. He was loved by the media, appearing on Meet the Press, Hardball, This Week with Geoege Stephanopolous. Rarely was there critical treatment of him, and it showed in national polls.
But in 2000, the South Carolina primary changed him forever. The reservoir of good will that he spent years nourishing was of no use to him anymore. In fact, it made things worse. Rove used McCain's cross-appeal against him, undermining any support he might have had with conservatives. And somewhere in his mind, McCain must have known that while he was suffering and sacrificing in a Hanoi hell pit, George W. Bush was essentially dodging his duties by enlisting in the National Guard. He then watched Bush win the nomination by aligning with "the agents of intolerance" than McCain had famously denounced.
When in 2003, Bush so disastrously mismanaged the Iraq War, McCain must have known (correctly, I believe) that he would have been the more effective Commander-In-Chief, precisely because of the Vietnam War that Bush had avoided. McCain clearly understood that more than 125,000 troops would be needed to defeat Saddam and occupy his country. McCain was the only respected member of the GOP to prognosticate that the coming insurgency would be brutal, but worth fighting for. He openly disagreed with Vice President Cheney, called for the resignation of Don Rumsfeld, and was one of the first to publicly back General Petreus and endorse the surge at the precise moment when the public wanted to abandon Iraq. As 2008 approached, he was still admired by both parties and enjoyed a darling status with the media.
So he must have believed that 2008 was his time. But then came a strange (and what I believe to be an irresponsible) NYT story that essentially stated that some of McCain's former aides believed in 2000 that he may have had an affair with a lobbyist. And the new media darling was Barack Obama. Chris Matthews, who for years had such a crush on McCain, now rejoiced at how Obama's speech gave him a thrill up and down his leg. McCain, of course, lost the 2008 election because his campaign failed, not because of a conspiracy. To McCain, he must have viewed matters like this: He was a war hero, who built up a reputation for integrity, tolerance, and true post-partisanship, and he lost to a man who had never served his nation, spent only four years in the Senate, and whose crowning achievement was a keynote address and some bridge-building he did at the Harvard Law Review. Two years later, he was in danger of losing his own Senate seat in Arizona because he wasn't conservative enough!
For all of his service, sacrifice, relationships with the media, and political risk-takings, what does JohnMcCain have to show for it as 2011 approaches? He'll never be POTUS. His greatest legislative legacy, the McCain-Feingold bill, which was so microcosmic of his dedication to transcending political corruption and partisanship, was struck down by the SCOTUS in a 5-4 decision. His own party almost kicked him out. And now his military is abandoning what he believes is a core value.
John McCain lost an election, which ended his political career. He then lost his status in his party. With the repeal of DADT, he must feel like he now lost his country.<<