What makes McCain tick—and why it’s a mistake for conservatives to support McCain for Palin’s sake

I recommend the very intelligent and revealing profile of John McCain by Mark Leibovich and David D. Kirkpatrick in yesterday’s issue of the New York Times, which, in a rare move, I purchased (now at $1.50 a pop) to read during an out-of-town train trip. It gets into a key aspect of McCain’s psyche, shown in a repeated behavior pattern throughout his life, which is that he will do something, and then very noisily and publicly repent of doing it.

Below is the key section of the article:

The Self Critic

Few politicians have apologized as profusely or as fortuitously as Mr. McCain. He may be the only candidate-author whose editor cut back on the self-criticism in the first draft of his campaign memoirs. “He was quite happy to lacerate himself,” recalled the editor, Jonathan Karp.

Joe McCain attributes his brother’s habit of public penitence to the example of their father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr. “He would whack us on the rear end with these leather slippers that he had,” Joe McCain recalled. “Then he would come back out rubbing his hands together, and I could tell he felt so bad that I almost felt sorry for the guy.”

Their father expected them to live up to a military code of honor and atone for any lapses, teaching them that it was the only way to retain the respect of those around them.

“I think one of John’s deepest needs is to be believed and trusted,” Joe McCain said. After submitting to a forced “confession” statement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, John McCain has said, he found relief from his shame by provoking his guards to beat him.

John McCain’s aspirations were always grand. As a boy, he dreamed of an admiralty like his father’s. As the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, he set his sights on becoming a member. In Vietnam he had mused aloud to cellmates about becoming president, and as soon as he won his first Senate race in 1986 he “felt an emotional need to envision some future goal,” as he recalled in his 2002 memoir, “Worth the Fighting For.”

But he exasperated himself with his own self-defeating behavior—letting his barfly antics as a young pilot undercut his credibility as a Navy officer, or later jeopardizing his friendship with his patrons, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, by leaving his first wife for a glamorous beer heiress 20 years younger, Cindy McCain. “He has always felt very guilty about it,” his Navy colleague James McGovern recalled in an interview eight years ago. “I have never talked with him for more than 40 minutes when he didn’t bring it up.”

For most of his political career, Mr. McCain was a straight-ahead partisan. He voted along party lines, crushed his opponents by outspending them, and sought to run the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. His preferred public image—the straight-talking maverick—did not emerge until well after 1989, when he became one of five senators caught up in a scandal over meetings with savings and loan regulators on behalf of Mr. Keating, a wealthy donor. In a marathon news conference and nonstop media interviews, Mr. McCain became the foremost critic of his own poor judgment (any other accusations he called defamation).

“The national media was saying, ‘John McCain is the only one who is talking about this, and sometimes it seems like he won’t shut up,’ ” recalled Jay Smith, a political consultant who advised Mr. McCain at the time. As the senator kept talking, “the scandal seemed to improve markedly for him.” Seeing that his openness was effective, Mr. McCain later wrote, he adopted it as a permanent “public relations strategy.”

Repentance became a theme of his career. He wove his regret over decades of smoking Marlboros into his drive for a tobacco tax overhaul. Then he said he felt ashamed of his own party for neglecting children’s health by blocking the bill. He even organized his best-selling 1999 memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” as a confession. Written with Mr. Salter, his longtime aide, as a springboard to the 2000 presidential race, it catalogs his decades of misbehavior leading to the realization in a Vietnamese prison of the deeper satisfaction of “a cause greater than myself.” Soon he was turning the Keating episode into a similar parable of short-sighted self-interest.

In the 2000 Republican primary, Mr. McCain sometimes seemed to be battling his own impulses as much as he was his rival, Mr. Bush. He opened the year with a speech in New Hampshire denouncing contemporary politics as “little more than a spectacle of selfish ambition” and pledging to take the high ground. At the same event, however, his campaign passed out a news release falsely asserting that Mr. Bush’s “political” tax plan would “put Social Security in danger.” Mr. McCain was apologizing by the end of the day.

Operatives on both sides say Mr. McCain gave as well as he got for most of the race. “It was McCain on the stump fighting the ‘Death Star,’ “—his epithet for the Bush juggernaut, Mr. Salter recalled.

But when his opponents unleashed anonymous phone calls and fliers spreading rumors about his family before the South Carolina primary, Mr. McCain fired back with a commercial accusing Mr. Bush of lying like President Bill Clinton. Its tone backfired, hurting Mr. McCain more than his target. Advisers pushed for a better attack but acknowledged they could not win the state. Instead Mr. McCain insisted on publicly apologizing and pulling the commercials. “So we died on higher ground,” said John Weaver, a former aide.

A few months later, Mr. McCain was back in the state apologizing for holding his tongue about his disdain for the Confederate flag to try to win the race.

“I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition,” Mr. McCain declared. “I accept it, all of it. I deserve it.”

His loss in South Carolina made him a martyr: the politician too good for politics. “He came out of that primary the most popular politician in the country,” Mr. Weaver recalled.

“Is he crazy like a fox?” Mr. Weaver added. “Listen, he is a very good intuitive politician, and he is a lot smarter politically than those of us around him or he wouldn’t be where he is at.”

Former opponents marvel at Mr. McCain’s political alchemy. “He takes a past failing, hangs it around his neck, and wears it like a medal,” said Kevin Madden, who worked for Mitt Romney in the primary….

“At heart, he’s a maverick, and the maverick doesn’t like the corral,” said Mark McKinnon, a close aide to President Bush and Mr. McCain who is not involved in the campaign. “But the corral is where he is. And it’s working.”

Mr. McCain’s advisers say he hoped to pick up his 2008 campaign where his 2000 race left off—bucking convention, running against politics. He started his run against the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, with an apology. Standing on the balcony of the Memphis hotel where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, he told a mostly black crowd that he had made a mistake years ago in opposing a federal holiday for King.

As I was reading this, I thought, how dangerous this makes McCain. He’s a man who proceeds, not by reason, but by some inner need to repent of his sins, most of which are sins against liberalism, and to compel the rest of us to join in his repentance. And this explains the unyielding ferocity of his desire for open borders. America is narrow, nativist, and xenophobic; to win back its honor, it must right itself, and it can only do this by letting itself by Hispanicized.

And for all you Sarah Palin fans out there, who see her as such a wonderful breath of fresh air and great representative of the “real” America, please understand that your gal Palin will be using her formidable political gifts, including her charisma, her striking female good looks, and her self-advertised pit bull aggressiveness, to help her boss legalize all illegal aliens in the U.S. Is that what you really want?

- end of initial entry -

Mark Jaws writes:

You wrote:

And for all you Sarah Palin fans out there, who see her as such a wonderful breath of fresh air and great representative of the “real” America, please understand that your gal Palin will be using her formidable political gifts, including her charisma, her striking female good looks, and her self-advertised pit bull aggressiveness, to help her boss legalize all illegal aliens in the U.S. Is that what you really want?

l do agree with you that the McCain speech minus the compelling life story was vapid, as I knew it would be. You are also quite correct in stating Sarah Palin may go to waste during a McCain Administration, but as I do with all things, I choose to be more of a Tigger than an Eeyore. So, with an optimistic eye rather than an eternally gloomy disposition, I noted a few glimpses of sunlight during this convention. First, the entertainment did not look like a Motown Revival. Second, Palin praised small town (i.e., white America). Third, McCain cited three white (I believe) families during his speech and avoided the “diversity is our strength” platitudes. Small steps, but steps in the right direction.

Thus, it is my hope that if McCain wins in November, both he and Sarah Palin will realize and acknowledge the following:

(1) The role that Palin and the small town and suburban base played in putting him into the White House

(2) Hispandering does not work (Latinos will likely vote for Obama in droves)

(3) We cannot afford to lavish our social services on a highly unassimilable and ungrateful demographic that is costly and highly dysfunctional

(4) The need to listen to the base and secure the borders and THEN make the “Pathway to Citizenship” as narrow, costly, and demanding as possible

(5) Palin is the heir apparent who cannot afford to be branded with the already proven disastrous brand of “compassionate conservatism” dished out by Bush and McCain

I am in the GOP camp this time around strictly because of Palin. If there were “Palin 2012” bumper stickers and yard signs, I would put proudly display them rather than McCain-Palin. Let me say it again, a real person such as Palin is much more likely to truly empathize with and LISTEN TO the base, unlike the rich and out of touch elites such as Romney, Bush, and McCain. It is my hope that Sarah Palin will be the one elite we traditionalists will win over and call our own.

LA replies:

This comment is well reasoned, but I see a particular flaw in it. We have no idea what Palin’s overall political philosophy/ideology is, or even if she has one. Anti-abortion, pro-guns, assertive patriotism, do not a political philosophy make. Ronald Reagan became the standard bearer of conservatism, because he profoundly understood and eloquently and forcefully espoused a conservative vision over many years before becoming president. I’ve seen three Palin speeches so far, and no sign in them of a political point of view. To place all these hopes on Palin as a political leader when her political views seem elementary or unformed seems premature to me.

Mark Jaws writes:

True, her philosophy is the missing factor, but the fact that she is pro-gun and willing to stare directly at the liberal media and tell them “nuts” are two very good indicators. Furthermore, all of the other ingredients are there for her to vector the traditionalist message (looks, folksiness, small town self-reliance, competence, feistiness) with great effect. The potential is undeniably there. So far, what I have seen, I have liked.

I believe that through the course of Western history no transforming movement has ever achieved success without some degree of support from the elites. The more I rub elbows with folks on the fringe, (e.g., the Constitution Party and another group which I will not mention), the more I realize that without a popular and widely known advocate, they are going nowhere. We don’t have that now, but perhaps the combination of a loud base and demographic circumstances will push Sarah Palin firmly into our camp. Right now, not only is she the brightest point of light we have, she is the only light we have.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 05, 2008 08:47 AM | Send

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