McCain's Last Stand
When it comes to Iraq, the Arizona senator remains a prisoner of Vietnam, bravely taking a bullet for a commander in chief who betrayed himI've now seen John McCain in South Carolina twice this election season. The first time came last spring at a Republican debate, where the fatigued-looking seventy-one-year-old senator all but pulled a Monty Python crack-suicide-squad act onstage, standing up during a hail of political gunfire in a televised repartee about the torture issue.
One by one, McCain's GOP opponents had lunged toward the cameras pledging, by means of innuendo both thinly veiled and not veiled at all, boundless enthusiasm for the abuse and torture of America's terror-war detainees. Rudy Giuliani, baldly seeking to overcome his rep as a two-faced Yankee liberal who kills the unborn and dresses in women's clothes, grinned into the cameras and said he would tell his people to "use every method they could think of" to get information. The other suspect Northerner, the Mormon queer-coddler Mitt Romney, took in Giuliani's response like a frat pledge who had just been issued a beer-pong challenge, preposterously promising to one-up the field and "double Guantanamo."
Both answers elicited approving roars from the blood-lusting South Carolina crowd, and it seemed only a matter of time before Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter pulled a car battery out from behind the podium and pledged himself ready to torture someone, anyone, right now, if it would win him red-state votes. But just then, McCain, who spent five and a half years in a POW camp in Vietnam, decided to rain on the parade. "If we torture people," he said sadly, "what happens to our military people when they're captured?" After the debate, he went even further, offering a history lesson on one of America's choicest "enhanced" interrogation techniques, water-boarding. "Do you know where that was invented?" McCain asked. "In the Spanish Inquisition. Do we want to do things that were done in the Spanish Inquisition?"
In the diffident silence you could almost feel McCain's poll numbers dropping toward the low single digits. I, for one, was impressed. It seems amazing to say, but in the Bush era, distancing oneself from the Spanish Inquisition actually qualifies as political courage.
In the absurd black comedy of the American electoral process, our presidential candidates are mostly two-dimensional monsters, grotesque approximations of human beings born by some obscene asexual reproductive method in the demeaning celluloid muck of the campaign trail. They might be manicured, market-tested pieces of ambulatory political product like Mitt Romney, or bottomless pits of vengeful little-guy ambition like Rudy Giuliani -- but they are almost never fallible, thinking, multi-dimensional human beings. And yet that is what John McCain sometimes is. He is a relic in these proceedings, a man who will sometimes say what he actually thinks, even if it costs him politically -- like calling Jerry Falwell and other televangelists "agents of intolerance," or ripping ethanol as "a product that would not exist if Congress didn't create an artificial market for it," or copping to an "act of political cowardice" for having supported the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina Statehouse. In such moments, McCain is like a guy who walks into a bar mitzvah reception and kicks off dinner by saying grace.
That supposed straight-shooter quality already cost McCain dearly in South Carolina once, when his refusal to fight back against a sucker-punching George Bush in 2000 sent his political career into a spiral, indirectly sending the rest of us careening into an ill-considered invasion of Iraq. Now, in mid-September, I watch him return to the state as a prisoner of Bush's idiot policies in Iraq. This time around, by some curious leap of Stockholm-syndrome logic, McCain has chosen Bush's cruel and asinine Mesopotamian war as the great principle he will not betray. This leaves him looking like a morbidly tragicomic figure, the doomed last rat stubbornly remaining on the deck of his one-time enemy's fast-sinking ship. As he makes his fateful return to the state where it all started to go wrong for him eight years ago, you can almost see a flash of pained recognition in his eyes, as if he is seeing his mistake too late, as the water rises up to drown him in obscurity.
It was obvious right from the start that things had changed decidedly for the sadder since the last time McCain campaigned in South Carolina. Back then, in 2000, McCain was the hottest name in American politics, a Newsweek cover boy fresh from his victory in New Hampshire. This former POW came to South Carolina on an all-time high, expecting to win this state in a rout and be crowned nominee of his party and probable next president of the United States. In those days, his candidacy's signature image was his campaign bus, a decked-out vehicle with STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS plastered on the side that was received as a campaign co-star bigger than even McCain's war record or his doe-eyed, former-pill-popping wife. That, of course, was before the so-close-you-could-touch-it fantasy turned completely to shit -- amid a strange firestorm of whispers and rumors about McCain having gone crazy in Nam and later fathering an illegitimate child with a black prostitute, rumors the Bush-Rove camp winkingly denied thinking up for the pre-election amusement of these simple rural folk.
Fast-forward to September 2007. Buzz all gone, campaign coffers nearly empty, having suffered the indignity of finishing behind Barack Obama in a survey of Iowa Republicans, McCain limps into South Carolina a whipping boy for the loser-hating national press. This time around, he has named his bus after a failure. While rivals Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney all ride in pimped-out circus vehicles with geeky names (the "Mitt Mobile" is an all-time low), McCain's bus looks like it was rented off a lot in Paramus, New Jersey. It features no stenciled flags, no proud-looking eagles, nothing -- just a single green stripe with a sad little double-entendre inscription on the side reading NO SURRENDER. As in, No Surrender in Iraq, as well as No Surrender in My Doomed Campaign. That someone in the McCain camp thought it prudent to advertise, on the side of a bus, the desperate nature of the candidate's situation should say everything that needs to be said about how his campaign has been run all year.
It is as if McCain has decided to spend his final days with his own. His stump speech has been reduced to ten minutes of Poconos jokes ("I sleep like a baby -- sleep two hours, wake up and cry, sleep two hours, wake up and cry...") followed by ten more minutes of hugging old soldiers and ending with ten minutes of worn-out, Hannity-esque talking points about Iraq, which he makes no attempt to distinguish from WWII or Vietnam.
If McCain has a serious and compelling reason to continue to tie his political fate to the disastrous occupation of Iraq, he doesn't disclose it at these stops; instead, he wearily jacks off these crowds of frightened old vets with early-Bush-era rhetorical relics like "if we just get out of there, they will follow us home" and halfhearted swipes at standard-issue "anti-war" villains like MoveOn.org and The New York Times. Then he hugs a few more uniforms and bolts.
The pre-South Carolina McCain of 2000 was viewed as a candidate who could talk to the whole country, a man of decidedly conservative views who could "cross the aisle" and "work with the other side." But the McCain of 2008 is as good as dead to the seventy-odd percent of the country that wants the troops home. So in his waning days he contents himself with trading in the quack syllogistic reasoning of pop conservatism. There's the always popular Because Terrorists Are Bad, We Must Fight Them in Iraq, Where They Weren't (if suicide bombers kill Iraqi kids, "what are they willing to do to our children?"). There's the still more popular When Liberals Defame Soldiers, Soldiers Die in Iraq (on MoveOn's criticism of Gen. Petraeus: "I don't think there's a place in this country for impugning the integrity and honor of those who serve"). And there's the greatest of all pro-war sophisms, the brilliant We Invaded Iraq Because Someone Kind of Like the Iraqis Attacked Us First ("The enemies we face there harbor the same depraved indifference to human life as those who killed 3,000 innocent Americans").
By now there isn't anyone left "across the aisle" who'd even think about buying this shit, but that's OK, because McCain is no longer talking to "everybody." The comments from McCain supporters after his appearances make it clear who this candidate is embracing during his last days in the foxhole. Rusty Houser likes McCain's stance on the war; when I ask him why we are in Iraq in the first place, he tells me, "To get rid of Al Qaeda." When I point out that Bush himself has admitted there was no connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Houser shrugs. Bush, he assures me, "doesn't always let people know what he knows."
Another McCain supporter named Johnny Mack who is pushing "No Surrender" petitions at a VFW appearance in Anderson says he didn't know that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq before the war, but that doesn't matter, because "I'm just a dumb country boy" who nonetheless knows of "secret reasons" for the war from his time running nightclubs in the Midwest, where he learned "things I can't disclose."
A third supporter, Lynn Fowler, says she agrees with McCain's assessment that we need to fight the terrorists in Iraq because otherwise they will come here. "I never understood that one," I say. "If the terrorists want to fight us here, how are we stopping them from coming by going to Iraq? Are we tying up the air-traffic controllers or something?"
She frowns. "They are here," she says. "They're all around us! They have prayer mats in schools! In New York, there are taxi drivers who won't let you in their cab if you're carrying alcohol!"
"Yeah, they're already here," agrees a guy in an Air Force T-shirt. "All over the place."
I look around at the empty state highway. "Everywhere? If they're all over, why aren't they attacking?"
Rusty has an answer for that one. "They're passing information from this country to that country," he says.
"Yeah," Air Force guy says. "Information about the relatives of our soldiers."
This is the part of McCain I can't figure out. If this man has too much scruple to indulge Middle America's torture fantasies, then how come he's not above peddling equally wrongheaded rhetoric about Iraq? There are a great many ways a man like McCain could play things, if he really thought staying in Iraq is the right thing to do. He could insist that we have a responsibility to prevent a bloodbath, or he could talk openly about our strategic and economic interests in the region. Instead, he says we have to stay in Iraq because a bunch of Internet liberals insulted an American general and because our occupation of Baghdad is somehow preventing terrorists in Jalalabad from finding a flight to New York.
I try to ask McCain about this outside his bus after his event in Aiken. "Senator," I say, "you've said many times that if we don't fight them over there, they're gonna come over here. Why can't they just come over here anyway?"
"Because," he snaps, "we're not allowing them to establish bases there or in Afghanistan."
"But they didn't have a base in Iraq before we went there."
"Uh, in case you missed it," he says, "they had bases in Afghanistan, and those bases were training grounds, in which Al Qaeda was very effective."
"But we're not talking about Afghanistan," I say. "We're talking--"
"We're talking," he says, sighing, "about the likelihood that Iraq turns into Afghanistan. Which is exactly the scenario that I envision, and most experts agree. Even General Jones and General Petraeus have said it's now the central battleground in the War on Terror."
"Yeah, but..." I begin, then let it go. The look on McCain's face says it all. His answer doesn't have to make sense; it just has to work with this crowd. If you can tour the countryside and get away with telling a bunch of poorly educated Middle American fear addicts that bin Laden will be showing up at their kids' soccer games if they don't keep up the war effort, then you do it. Because that's how you win elections in this country, by scaring the shit out of people. That's a far cry from "Straight Talk" -- but then again, that "Straight Talk" shit was a long time and many ugly poll results ago.
The cruelest irony of the McCain campaign is that had Bush not invaded Iraq, we might be looking at the runaway favorite for the presidency. McCain always made more sense as a "centrist" candidate, acceptable to Republicans and at least somewhat tolerable (by comparison to other Republicans) to some Democrats; in peacetime he would have blown away the likes of Romney and Giuliani on stature and credentials alone, and the main event with Hillary probably would have been a cakewalk.
But this war in Iraq has revealed McCain's Achilles' heel. A fighter pilot who had his broken body dragged to a hole after his plane crashed and was left to rot for five years by an exacting enemy, McCain appears genuinely incapable of viewing Iraq through any prism but that of soldierly experience. On the trail, he brings with him a team of comrades from his Vietnam POW camp and talks again and again about needing to continue the fight in the Middle East to honor the sacrifice of soldiers, and that "the best way to prevent future sacrifice is to win." But Iraq isn't Vietnam, and the notion that wars are fought not to protect real national interests but to avenge the suffering of soldiers is another of those problematic syllogistic formulas that politicians have used for decades to snow the public into military action. Just because we can find enemies overseas who are willing to deal harshly with our young men and women doesn't mean we should have been looking for them in the first place, or that it's right to keep letting them have that pleasure. But it's hard to see it that way when you're the one taking the bullets, as McCain was once.
Twice now, George W. Bush has ruined John McCain. Once was in a vicious, unforgivable political ambush here in South Carolina eight years ago. But this time, McCain is just collateral damage in Bush's invasion of Iraq, a war that has sent him back in time to combat nonexistent ghosts at precisely the moment he should have been seizing the present. It's a story we've seen too often with soldiers in both Vietnam and Iraq: They volunteer for duty, suffer for their country, then realize either too late or not at all that they have been betrayed not by the enemy but by their own commander in chief. That's sad for John McCain, who has chosen tragically to carry the cross of Bush's war in this race. But let's hope it stays his personal tragedy -- and doesn't become, by means of some terrible accident at the polls, ours.
[From Issue 1037 — October 18, 2007]