Last Tuesday marked a huge triumph for a man who, only a few weeks ago, seemed to have a career as moribund as Richard Nixon's during the latter's multiple political deaths. For John McCain, given up for dead as late as the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, rose like a phoenix to capture four state Republican primaries, and with them, the putative Republican nomination for president.
McCain's comeback provides a study of one man's dogged determination to play to his, not his opponents', strengths, to attempt a cautious rapprochement with the Republican conservative evangelical base, to soldier on despite an empty campaign treasury and numerous staff defections, to avoid too close an identification with the unpopular incumbent, George W. Bush, and to remain true to the lights that guided him from the beginning of his odyssey. It would be the last man standing, he felt, and if he could outlast the others, he had a chance.
Since most media glitter in this long primary season enfolds the deadlocked Democratic Party contest between New York's Hillary Clinton and youthful Illinois Senator Barack Obama, Americans understandably have proved reticent to notice, let alone embrace, the Republicans. Bush's sins in the last eight years have come close to sinking the American ship of state, now listing badly in a swirling economic and foreign policy maelstrom.
Conversely, the Democrats are invigorated, as much as they have been since John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960. Whatever the outcome -- and the unfolding process will be great fun to watch -- history will be made: the first African American contender in Obama, the first female candidate in Clinton, or a compromise "dream ticket" featuring both aspirants. Supporters of both candidates identify McCain with forces that will bring at least the end of the world.
With the lion's share of attention going to his opponents, both of whom stand (albeit in different ways) for a "new America," McCain now occupies the promontory conventionally given to the fabled tortoise against the hare. That story, of course, shows the hare rushing out to an early lead, only to be distracted and diverted and to lose at the end.
McCain possesses several strengths that should not be underestimated. The Arizonan has name recognition from 2000, when he ran for the Republican nomination, only to be blindsided in South Carolina by allegations that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. That he had, in fact, adopted a black child did not help him in that year's South Carolina primary, and subsequently his political career appeared to wane.
But like Nixon, McCain had staying power, strengthened, no doubt, by the self-reliance necessitated by more than five years in prisoner-of-war camps in Vietnam after being shot down in October 1967. McCain received severe injuries, damage that still limits movement in his arms. Some observers also worry, in view of his forced confession of war crimes, that the physical and psychological torture he incurred affected his mental state. Unlike 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry,who could not make up his mind between the three Purple Hearts he earned in Vietnam and his principled opposition to that conflict as a subsequent leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, McCain has not wavered in his support of the U.S. military, only the strategy and tactics the Bush administration chose.
And it is in this venue the realm of patriotism traditionally defined that McCain will stake his colours. After a political career in the Senate as a centrist and individualist not afraid of conflict with anyone, McCain comes across as a 72-year-old sage with a sense of humour, of self-deprecation, and a large capacity for fatalism.
McCain also has faults as a presidential candidate. He seeks to offset his advanced age with a vocal style increasingly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan; he has a temper that can be more than unpleasant; he supports tax cuts for the wealthy; he was involved with savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating, taking more than $100,000 in contributions from him; and, more recently, he flip- flopped completely on his view of the Republican evangelical base, moving from criticism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to giving the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University in 2006.
For those Americans heeding Obama and Clinton in their respective calls for "change," McCain represents the dismal potential of another four or eight years of Bush policies.
Obama and Clinton supporters worry about the catastrophic war in Iraq, an open-ended global war on terror, an economy headed down the tubes, global warming, to cite a few big issues, and a country, the United States, that still considers itself in the world but not of it.
Yet McCain is not a quick read. He has shown concern for the environment and the influence of special interests on public policy and the electoral process. He is also more than willing to the consternation of the Republican right wing to work out a practical compromise between current immigration law and practice. As one blogger observed in the New York Times, McCain "has more experience in life, death and politics than either of the Democratic candidates."
If "experience" counts in the upcoming election, watch for McCain. He will not go away.
This article appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard 10 March 2008.