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Wither the Hero?

October 29th, 2008

Kevin Drum brings up an article written by David Gelernter where he gushes about McCain’s character:

More than any candidate in recent decades, perhaps more than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower, McCain asks to be judged not as a talking white paper but as a man. Of course no candidate can advertise his own moral stature; he can use weak words like “maverick” and “I have been tested,” but can’t quite say “I stand before you as a hero of proven nobility.” On the all-important question of moral stature, McCain’s friends must speak for him. They have tried, but have come up short. …

Granting the importance of the topic, the difference in moral stature between presidential candidates has rarely been as enormous as it is today–not (or not only) because Obama’s is so small but because McCain’s is so large. There is no single English word for McCain the hero, the moral entity. But in Hebrew he would be called a tsaddik–a man of such nobility and moral substance that he approaches holiness. If this assertion sounds crazy, that only shows how little we have thought about the issue.

Why does Gelernter believe McCain is a noble hero one hair’s breadth short of being a holy man? On page two, he explains that it is because McCain volunteered for military service, was shot down and became a POW for five years, survived the pain of his ordeal, and “chose to suffer for their principles and for love of country.”

Um, did anyone ever tell him that McCain repeatedly admitted that he never loved America until he was “deprived of her company”? Meaning that his choice to join the military and suffer what followed could not have been made for the love of his country. Nor, likely, for principles–McCain came from a family of military men, and most likely joined the military because it was expected of him; his near-bottom-of-the-class grades were likely evidence of his lack of enthusiasm for his service.

Nor has Gelernter apparently been clued into the fact that McCain’s campaign was founded upon the whole “honor” and “hero” thing, that despite McCain never having used the word “hero” about himself, he used everything short of it, constantly reminded everyone about his POW years at the drop of any and every hat, and had his campaign and surrogates play up the “hero” and “POW” angles to the hilt, and beyond.

And I think that the “beyond” part is one factor that caused the state Gelernter is now lamenting: McCain used up the “hero” bit way too early in his campaign. They over-used it as a way to defend McCain from criticism over his gaffes, missteps, and scandals, until people started talking about “a noun, a verb, and John McCain was a POW.”

After that, McCain and his campaign had to leave it alone before it became more of a joke than it was already becoming. But at that point, his “hero” creds were damaged, his shining armor worn away, and thus McCain was no longer as immune to doubt and criticism as he had been previously. So when McCain started lying incessantly, when he started making absurdly ridiculous choices and statements, and when his campaign devolved into a morass of smears, attacks, and badly-managed stunts, McCain could no longer count on the “I was a POW” refrain to shore up Americans’ doubts about him. That credit card got maxed out.

The fact is, people don’t see McCain as an honorable man so much because of the way McCain has been acting. Calling his opponent a traitor and a terrorist sympathizer without having the guts to say it in so many words. Making bald-faced lies about things that had already been proven as lies. Inciting his base to the point where they are calling for violence. The thing is, honorable men don’t do these things. That creates a conflict: you either have to believe that John McCain is not honorable, or that he is such a weak-kneed dupe that he can be forced to say and do these things against his will, which is hardly better, if it is different at all.

Right now, people simply shake their heads and wonder how a “hero” could have sunk so low. But the truth is, McCain wasn’t the hero everyone thought he was. There are a number of facts about his life, military service, imprisonment, and subsequent political career that even to this day haven’t been discussed widely, mostly because nobody wants to be called out on “smearing” such an honorable man. But they’re not smears if they’re the truth. His personal life is filled with unpleasant episodes and examples of poor judgment. His military service was very poor, and he would never have been called a “hero” had he not been captured and tortured.

But even in his being a POW, McCain has a weakness: the story has been played up and exaggerated, with McCain cast as John Sterling Steele, a hero who stood out among heroes. And that’s just not right. McCain was a human being like most of the rest in imprisonment. Many believe that McCain never broke under torture–not true, he broke after four days. Many believe that he never denounced his country or did propaganda for the enemy–again, not true–he did those things. Many, including Gelernter, play up the fact that McCain refused early release–but they gloss over the fact that such a refusal was not an act of solidarity in support of his cellmates, but was simply because in order to gain his freedom, McCain would have had to make statements that would have violated military law and set him up for a court-martial. None of this is vilifying; it is simply the way things were, and you or I likely would have done no better.

None of this is to say that McCain didn’t serve, wasn’t a POW, didn’t suffer, or that he was a horrible person during his time in captivity in some way. It is simply that McCain was a POW no better than any of the others. And that’s the tragedy of his own publicity: had he not exaggerated his past or allowed it to be exaggerated, had he simply told a more modest truth, he would have been lauded as even more of a hero. Had he actually maintained silence about his own military record and asked his surrogates to not play it up so much, he would be far more respected for it.

Instead, he played it up and maxed out the credit card–another thing real heroes don’t do.

I will simply judge McCain on what is plain to see: he is a man who sold out his honor and dignity for a shot at power. He has lied, cheated, taken bribes, prostrated himself before those who humiliated him, and done all the things a hero never does.

And that’s why more and more people judge him in a poor light: because his deeds do not live up to his reputation. Simple as that.

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