We're hearing a lot about Presidential 'character' these days. It is universally admitted that John McCain has it while traditional pols, epitomized by Bill Clinton, do not. McCain's recent success is attributed to this fact.
Using Webster's definition--moral excellence and firmness--character is indeed a fine quality. In conjunction with the other things we expect in a leader, it is beautiful and all too rare. But what does it really mean to say McCain has 'character'? And should the fate of a nation ever be hitched to such an abstraction?
Fawning accounts of the senator's character invariably center around his war record. Specifically, they recount the man's superhuman endurance under torture and his refusal to accept early release from a POW camp. No one who has lived their entire life in civilian duds can fail to be profoundly moved by this. John McCain commands respect for his strength and fraternal loyalty. Clearly.
And yet, we must not forget that this heroic display of character was born out of a martial code and a patriotism that is fundamentally mindless. No doubt many a doughboy ran out of the trenches full of love for God and country, full of courage and fighting spirit. But a healthy society properly views their bravery as tragic and pathetic, not heroic.
Whereas the young men of WW I could be excused for thinking they were defending their country, the Vietnam war was an act of US aggression. It was not fought in response to a threat to American security. It was--let us be honest--a criminal war. At least two million Vietnamese were slaughtered. Chemical and biological weapons were used against a helpless rural population. Thousands of tons of explosives were dropped indiscriminately for almost ten years. There is therefore no such thing as a Vietnam war "hero." On the American side, their were only victims of Cold War madness (of whom McCain the young sacrifice can be counted) and murderers (of whom McCain the bomber pilot can also be counted.)
John McCain somehow emerged from the Vietnam war not a committed protestor, but an unreconstructed militarist. Which is understandable; it's in his blood, his family, all that. But what does character mean when defined in such narrow, situational terms, when decoupled from the substance of commitments and values? An argument could be made that the notorious villains of our century were men of 'character': men unshakable in their firmest convictions, men the very opposite of the venal poll-worshipper.
Which is not to say that John McCain is a villain, but rather that 'character' is something of an empty vessel. Once the veil of 'character' is pulled back from Admiral McCain, we find an extremely hawkish, pro-life, anti-gun control Republican who amazingly drew the following lesson from Vietnam: that a government must not be restrained in the fighting of wars. Unless McCain is suggesting that the US should have nuked Vietnam, it is difficult to imagine what he means. America dropped more bomb tonnage on Vietnam than was used by all of the combatants in WW II combined. What kind of 'character' defends mass murder? What kind of 'character' argues that it wasn't taken far enough?
Along with his shining 'character', we are often reminded that McCain is very intelligent and knows a lot about foreign policy. Like character, however, knowledge and intelligence cannot be separated from the sympathies and ideologies that direct and employ it. Open up the black box of McCain's foreign policy expertise, and you find extremist views out of step with those of the majority of the American people, not the least of which is his firm opposition to the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He is a fanatical proponent of both theater and national missile-defense and has hinted that the US step-up its military involvement in Central Asia. His foreign policy views actually come closer to those of an earlier era's Arizona firebrand than that of a typical independent swing voter.
But if journalists haven't been quick to make the Goldwater analogy, they love to invoke TR.
Comparing John McCain to Teddy Roosevelt because he favors moderate campaign-finance reform is a bit like comparing Bill Clinton to Ralph Nader because he favors road safety education. Teddy Roosevelt's career was dedictaed to far-reaching structural domestic reform: reforms that fundamentally altered the power and scope of the Presidency, the relationship between industry and the state, and, to a lesser extent, the balance of power between social classes. John McCain is a foreign policy freak with a single reform project (although it is a big one). Roosevelt favored progressive taxation, a heavy estate tax, and stronger unions. McCain has traditional Republican tax views and has never been accused of being pro-labor. Roosevelt was an intellectual, with a strong grasp of complex issues, from antitrust law to conservation. When asked at a recent town hall meeting what he would do about global warming, John McCain awkwardly admitted that he really didn't know anything about it.
As much as I favor campaign finance reform, I do not want a President who is ignorant about climate change. Nor do I want a President that supports a national missile defense system at the cost of a new arms race and the nuclear balance. I do not want a President who is dismissive of polls and jack-snap ready to commit US ground troops around the world in defense of
questionable interests. I do not want a President who is the product of military culture and an enemy of arms control. I do not want Rambo running the country.
If independent voters can get past the fact that McCain is a strong, nice man, then they will realize they don't, either.