Too Much of a Bad Thing
My mom did not approve of men who cheated on their wives. She called them “long-tailed rats.”
During the 2000 race, she listened to news reports about John McCain confessing to dalliances that caused his first marriage to fall apart after he came back from his stint as a P.O.W. in Vietnam.
I figured, given her stringent moral standards, that her great affection for McCain would be dimmed.
“So,” I asked her, “what do you think of that?”
“A man who lives in a box for five years can do whatever he wants,” she replied matter-of-factly.
I was startled, but it brought home to me what a powerful get-out-of-jail-free card McCain had earned by not getting out of jail free.
His brutal hiatus in the Hanoi Hilton is one of the most stirring narratives ever told on the presidential trail — a trail full of heroic war stories. It created an enormous credit line of good will with the American people. It also allowed McCain, the errant son of the admiral who was the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam — his jailers dubbed McCain the “Crown Prince” — to give himself some credit.
“He has been preoccupied with escaping the shadow of his father and establishing his own image and identity in the eyes of others,” read a psychiatric evaluation in his medical files. “He feels his experiences and performance as a P.O.W. have finally permitted this to happen.”
The ordeal also gave a more sympathetic cast to his carousing. As Robert Timberg wrote in “John McCain: An American Odyssey,” “What is true is that a number of P.O.W.’s, in those first few years after their release, often acted erratically, their lives pockmarked by drastic mood swings and uncharacteristic behavior before achieving a more mellow equilibrium.” Timberg said Hemingway’s line that people were stronger in the broken places was not always right.
So it’s hard to believe that John McCain is now in danger of exceeding his credit limit on the equivalent of an American Express black card. His campaign is cheapening his greatest strength — and making a mockery of his already dubious claim that he’s reticent to talk about his P.O.W. experience — by flashing the P.O.W. card to rebut any criticism, no matter how unrelated. The captivity is already amply displayed in posters and TV advertisements.
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the pastor who married Jenna Bush and who is part of a new Christian-based political action committee supporting Obama, recently criticized the joke McCain made at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally encouraging Cindy to enter the topless Miss Buffalo Chip contest. The McCain spokesman Brian Rogers brought out the bottomless excuse, responding with asperity that McCain’s character had been “tested and forged in ways few can fathom.”
When the Obama crowd was miffed to learn that McCain was in a motorcade rather than in a “cone of silence” while Obama was being questioned by Rick Warren, Nicolle Wallace of the McCain camp retorted, “The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous.”
When Obama chaffed McCain for forgetting how many houses he owns, Rogers huffed, “This is a guy who lived in one house for five and a half years — in prison.”
As Sam Stein notes in The Huffington Post: “The senator has even brought his military record into discussion of his music tastes. Explaining that his favorite song was ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba, he offered that his knowledge of music ‘stopped evolving when his plane intercepted a surface-to-air missile.’ ‘Dancing Queen,’ however, was produced in 1975, eight years after McCain’s plane was shot down.”
The Kerry Swift-boat attacks in 2004 struck down the off-limits signs that were traditionally on a candidate’s military service. Many Democrats are willing to repay the favor, and Republicans clearly no longer see war medals as sacrosanct.
In a radio interview last week, Representative Terry Everett, an Alabama Republican, let loose with a barrage at the Democrat John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who is the head of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, calling him “cut-and-run John Murtha” and an “idiot.”
“And don’t talk to me about him being an ex-marine,” Everett said. “Lord, that was 40 years ago. A lot of stuff can happen in 40 years.”
The real danger to the McCain crew in overusing the P.O.W. line so much that it’s a punch line is that it will give Obama an opening for critical questions:
While McCain’s experience was heroic, did it create a worldview incapable of anticipating the limits to U.S. military power in Iraq? Did he fail to absorb the lessons of Vietnam, so that he is doomed to always want to refight it? Did his captivity inform a search-and-destroy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, “We are all Georgians,” mentality?
Last Call for Change We Can Believe In
AS the real campaign at last begins in Denver this week, this much is certain: It’s time for Barack Obama to dispatch “Change We Can Believe In” to a dignified death.
This isn’t because — OMG! — Obama’s narrow three- to four-percentage-point lead of recent weeks dropped to a statistically indistinguishable one- to three-point margin during his week of vacation. It’s because zero hour is here. As the presidential race finally gains the country’s full attention, the strategy that vanquished Hillary Clinton must be rebooted to take out John McCain.
“Change We Can Believe In” was brilliantly calculated for a Democratic familial brawl where every candidate was promising nearly identical change from George Bush. It branded Obama as the sole contender with the un-Beltway biography, credibility and political talent to link the promise of change to the nation’s onrushing generational turnover in all its cultural (and, yes, racial) manifestations. McCain should be a far easier mark than Clinton if Obama retools his act.
What we have learned this summer is this: McCain’s trigger-happy temperament and reactionary policies offer worse than no change. He is an unstable bridge back not just to Bush policies but to an increasingly distant 20th-century America that is still fighting Red China in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in the cold war. As the country tries to navigate the fast-moving changes of the 21st century, McCain would put America on hold.
What Obama also should have learned by now is that the press is not his friend. Of course, he gets more ink and airtime than McCain; he’s sexier news. But as George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs documented in its study of six weeks of TV news reports this summer, Obama’s coverage was 28 percent positive, 72 percent negative. (For McCain, the split was 43/57.) Even McCain’s most blatant confusions, memory lapses and outright lies still barely cause a ripple, whether he’s railing against a piece of pork he in fact voted for, as he did at the Saddleback Church pseudodebate last weekend, or falsifying crucial details of his marital history in his memoirs, as The Los Angeles Times uncovered in court records last month.
What should Obama do now? As premature panic floods through certain liberal precincts, there’s no shortage of advice: more meat to his economic plan, more passion in his stump delivery, less defensiveness in response to attacks and, as is now happening, sharper darts at a McCain lifestyle so extravagant that we are only beginning to learn where all the beer bullion is buried.
But Obama is never going to be a John Edwards-style populist barnburner. (Edwards wasn’t persuasive either, by the way.) Nor will wonkish laundry lists of policy details work any better for him than they did for Al Gore or Hillary Clinton. Obama has those details to spare, in any case, while McCain, who didn’t even include an education policy on his Web site during primary season, is still winging it. As David Leonhardt observes in his New York Times Magazine cover article on “Obamanomics” today, Obama’s real problem is not a lack of detail but his inability to sell policy with “an effective story.”
That story is there to be told, but it has to be a story that is more about America and the future and less about Obama and his past. After all these months, most Americans, for better or worse, know who Obama is. So much so that he seems to have fought off the relentless right-wing onslaught to demonize him as an elitist alien. Asked in last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll if each candidate shares their values, registered voters gave Obama and McCain an identical 63 percent. Asked if each candidate “cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself,” Obama beat McCain by 37 to 23 percent. Is the candidate “someone you can relate to”? Obama: 55 percent, McCain: 41. Even before McCain told Politico that he relies on the help to count up the houses he owns, he was the candidate seen as the out-of-step elitist.
So while Obama can continue to try to reassure resistant Clinton loyalists in Appalachia that he’s not a bogeyman from Madrassaland, he must also move on to the bigger picture for everyone else. He must rekindle the “fierce urgency of now” — but not, as he did in the primaries, merely to evoke uplifting echoes of the civil-rights struggle or the need for withdrawal from Iraq.
Most Americans, unlike the press, are not obsessed by race. (Those whites who are obsessed by race will not vote for Obama no matter what he or anyone else has to say about it.) And most Americans have turned their backs on the Iraq war, no matter how much McCain keeps bellowing about “victory.” The Bush White House is now poised to alight with the Iraqi government on a withdrawal timetable far closer to Obama’s 16 months than McCain’s vague promise of a 2013 endgame. As Gen. David Petraeus returns home, McCain increasingly resembles those mad Japanese soldiers who remained at war on remote Pacific islands years after Hiroshima.
Economic anxiety is the new terrorism. This is why the most relevant snapshot of voters’ concerns was not to be found at Saddleback Church but at the Olympics last Saturday. For all the political press’s hype, only some 5.5 million viewers tuned in to the Rev. Rick Warren’s show in Orange County, Calif. Roughly three-quarters of them were over 50 — in other words, the McCain base. By contrast, a diverse audience of 32 million Americans tuned in to Beijing that night to watch Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal.
This was a rare feel-good moment for a depressed country. But the unsettling subtext of the Olympics has been as resonant for Americans as the Phelps triumph. You couldn’t watch NBC’s weeks of coverage without feeling bombarded by an ascendant China whose superior cache of gold medals and dazzling management of the Games became a proxy for its spectacular commercial and cultural prowess in the new century. Even before the Olympics began, a July CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans fear China’s economic might — about as many as find America on the wrong track. Americans watching the Olympics could not escape the reality that China in particular and Asia in general will continue to outpace our country in growth while we remain mired in stagnancy and debt (much of it held by China).
How we dig out of this quagmire is the American story that Obama must tell. It is not a story of endless conflicts abroad but a potentially inspiring tale of serious economic, educational, energy and health-care mobilization at home. We don’t have the time or resources to go off on more quixotic military missions or to indulge in culture wars. (In China, they’re too busy exploiting scientific advances for competitive advantage to reopen settled debates about Darwin.) Americans must band together for change before the new century leaves us completely behind. The Obama campaign actually has plans, however imperfect or provisional, to set us on that path; the McCain campaign offers only disposable Band-Aids typified by the “drill now” mantra that even McCain says will only have a “psychological” effect on gas prices.
Even as it points to America’s future, the Obama campaign also has the duty to fill in its opponent’s past. McCain’s attacks on Obama have worked: in last week’s Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, Obama’s favorable rating declined from 59 to 48 percent and his negative rating rose from 27 to 35. Yet McCain still has a lower positive rating (46 percent) and higher negative rating (38) than Obama. McCain is not nearly as popular among Americans, it turns out, as he is among his journalistic camp followers. Should voters actually get to know him, he has nowhere to go but down.
The argument against Obama’s “going negative” is that it undermines his message of “transcendent politics” and will make him look like an “angry black man.” But pacifistic politics is an oxymoron, and Obama is constitutionally incapable of coming off angrier than McCain. A few more fisticuffs from the former law professor (and many more from his running mate and other surrogates) can only help make him look less skinny (metaphorically if not literally). Obama should go after McCain’s supposedly biggest asset — experience — much as McCain went after Obama’s crowd-drawing celebrity.
It is, after all, not mere happenstance that so many conservative pundits — Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru — have, to McCain’s irritation, proposed that he “patriotically” declare in advance that he will selflessly serve only a single term. Whatever their lofty stated reasons for promoting this stunt, their underlying message is clear: They recognize in their heart of hearts that the shelf life of McCain’s experience has already reached its expiration date.
Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?
R.I.P., “Change We Can Believe In.” The fierce urgency of the 21st century demands Change Before It’s Too Late.