The Mystery of John McCain

I have been on the road, got home late tonight (while my wife is traveling elsewhere), and amused myself with.... the C-SPAN rebroadcast of today's Don't Ask Don't Tell Senate hearings. Yes, this is exciting life for a member of The Atlantic's team.

The full video of the hearing is here; don't see how to embed the original feed. Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates have, I see, already mentioned the incredible crabbedness of John McCain's role at the hearings, which is on display in the opening minutes of the C-SPAN video.

Young McCain.jpgI'll stress the incredible part, because much more than my colleagues I can remember when McCain seemed to be a potentially Eisenhower-ish, as opposed to an increasingly Bunning-like, figure in American public life. Broad-minded, tolerant, eager to bridge rather than open divides -- this was the way he seemed to so many people starting from his arrival in the Congress in the 1980s.

 Seeing him now is surprising not simply because it reminds us: this man could be the sitting president, but also because it again raises the question, how did he end up this way? Even if his earlier identity had been artifice, what would be the payoff in letting it go?

I have been trying to think of a comparable senior public figure who, in the later stages of his or her career, narrowed rather than broadened his view of the world and his appeals to history's judgment. I'm sure there are plenty  (on two minutes' reflection, I'll start with Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh), but the examples that immediately come to mind go the other way.

George C. Wallace, once a firebrand of segregation, eventually became a kind of racial-healing figure near the end of his troubled life. There was something similar in the very long and winding path of Strom Thurmond (or Robert Byrd). Or Teddy Kennedy, who sharpened the ideological edge of his rhetoric as the years went on, but who increasingly valued his ability to work with rather than against his Republican counterparts in the Senate. Barry Goldwater went through the same evolution from the opposite starting point. Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, different kinds of peaceniks by the end. We know that for humanity in general, the passing years can often make people closed-minded and embunkered in their views. But for people in public life, it seems to me, surprisingly often the later years bring an awareness of the chanciness and uncertainty of life, the folly of bitterness, the long-term advantage of a big-tent rather than a purist approach.

John McCain seems intentionally to be shrinking his audience, his base, and his standing in history. It's unnecessary, and it is sad.

(Photo of young McCain from here.)

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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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