The Mystery of John McCain

By James Fallows

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.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/12/the-mystery-of-john-mccain/67428/