Intersecting arcs: McCain, Powell

The plotlines and character-motivations of the two Bush Administrations, 41 & 43, are perhaps too broad and obvious ever to support a first-rate novel. At least that is what reviews of Oliver Stone's W suggest to those, like me, who have not seen the film. (Not yet on the pirate-video market here in Beijing. Maybe next week.) Or if could be simply that Stone and other Bush chroniclers have taken a family saga of Shakespearean scale and presented it without corresponding richness and nuance.

Still, someone will eventually do something compelling with the intersecting stories of John McCain and Colin Powell, including the latest chapter that began today.

Close contemporaries, born eight months apart; both headed toward military careers, but from very different starting points -- immigrants' son, versus son and grandson of admirals. Lives changed by the Vietnam War, including ultimately putting both on the track to top-level politics.

Powell declining to take what could have been a promising path to the Republican nomination in 2000; McCain trying hard for that nomination but losing out to a slime-rich campaign by GW Bush and Karl Rove. It was during a debate in this campaign that McCain delivered his famous and withering line directly to Bush's face, about his campaign's character-assassination ads. The line, spat out with more contempt than anything McCain later displayed toward Obama, was "You should be ashamed" -- and, when Bush tried to answer, "You should be ashamed."

After that, diverging arcs: Powell providing cover and legitimacy for the Bush-Cheney WMD argument in favor of the Iraq war, and despite acclaim for his record as Secretary of State clearly understanding how his historical standing had been diminished. McCain increasing his "maverick" reputation, before that term became a joke, right through his defense of John Kerry against the Bush-Rove Swift Boat ads in 2004.

And now the arcs reverse again. Powell, with his endorsement of Obama, taking a cleansing step not because he is endorsing a Democrat or the person who, instead of him, has a chance to become the first black President. But rather because Powell is at last free to say the many "Cut the crap!" things that his fealty to the Administration had kept him from saying publicly while in office or until now, ranging from the perverse effects of anti-Muslim hysteria to the dangers of scorched earth political campaigns.

Meanwhile, John McCain, once laid low by those very tactics, embracing them as his best chance for victory this year. Powell, tainted by his association with the Bush Administration, choosing at age 71 to restore his reputation for recognition of higher principles. McCain, who earlier opposed Bush tactics, choosing at age 72 a path that in the end is likely to bring him both defeat and dishonor. Maybe we need a Shakespeare to do this story justice.