Understanding John McCain


Fallows' readers try to parse the bitter career end of the Arizona senator.

I wish I understood McCain. I thought I did once, but it seems increasingly clear that he is a man of near-suicidal vanity and misjudgment (remember suspending his entire campaign to deal with Lehman Brothers, or the insanely reckless selection of an unvetted Palin) and defined by grudges. Much of his shift to the center in 2000 and after was, it now seems obvious, an attempt to sabotage the man who defeated him, George W. Bush. His conduct in the last two years seems very similar with respect to Obama, despite Obama's early attempts to persuade and coopt him.

He's not homophobic. Very close members of his staff have been gay. His longtime chief-of-staff, Mark Buse, was and is openly gay. But perhaps buried in this psyche is something generational. McCain grew up in a world where homosexuality was never spoken of, and subsequently tolerated with radioactive discretion. Gays were objects of pity and sometimes personal affection - but never seen as full equals. And the notion of a core American icon - the American soldier - being equated with gayness - in the open - is something perhaps beyond his amygdala to process.

The alternative explanation for his recent behavior is fathomless cynicism and hollowness. It's important to remember how this torture victim, in 2006, agreed to acquiesce to the CIA using the same torture techniques once used on him on other prisoners.

The reason? Rove threatened him with full-scale opposition to his nomination in 2008 if he persisted in opposing torture, and Rove, for good measure, wanted to use torture as a key wedge issue in the 2006 mid-terms. I don't know how a torture victim can subsequently support the same thing being done to others. I don't know he sleeps at night knowing that he is responsible for tying human beings up for hours on end in excruciating stress positions - especially when he knows firsthand how horrifying this is. But I do know that such a man has lost his soul in the process.

And that is why this week is not the first time that I have felt a great deal of contempt for him. But it's also personal this time - because I know so many servicemembers who serve and have served with great honor, even with the knife of DADT stuck firmly in their backs. By possibly being the one man insisting on keeping that knife in them and twisting it, he has gone from being contemptible to being despicable, an enemy of the American soldier he is so proud publicly to support.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)