Something Bad About John McCain

Like most reporters, Chatterbox harbors an admiration for John McCain’s integrity, humor, and independence of mind that tends to distract him from substantive policy disagreements. (Click here and here to read two critical pieces Chatterbox forced himself to write about McCain’s refusal to tax e-commerce.) There’s no question that McCain is the finest person running for president this year; and, unlike George Bush père (who was the finest person running for president in 1992), McCain has a public persona that shows his character strengths to good advantage.

Still, McCain’s character is not without blemishes, and what better time than now to raise them? One smudge on McCain’s good-guy record that only Chatterbox seems to remember is McCain’s disgraceful speech to the 1988 Republican National Convention.

Even though George Bush père is a finer human being than Bill Clinton, in 1988 he ran a presidential campaign that was the ugliest and most trivial Chatterbox ever hopes to see. The twin pillars of Bush’s campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis–a perfectly decent and capable moderate Democrat whom Bush successfully caricatured as a hard leftist–were Willie Horton and the American flag. Chatterbox previously refreshed readers’ memories about how the Bush campaign used Horton to exploit racial hatred. Now let’s review how the Bush campaign–with a crucial assist from McCain–used the flag issue to question Dukakis’ patriotism.

In 1977, Dukakis vetoed a bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature that would have required the state’s teachers to lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He did so because he’d received an advisory opinion from the justices of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court saying the bill was unconstitutional. Three decades before, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional a similar West Virginia law. It’s conceivable that the Massachusetts law might have passed constitutional muster based on two differences from the West Virginia law: It imposed its requirement on teachers rather than students, and it included no penalty against anyone who refused to obey it. This is what the conservative legal scholar Walter Berns argued in a New York Times Op-Ed piece during the 1988 campaign. But a law whose constitutionality depends on its unenforceability hardly seems a law worth going to bat for. Besides, isn’t one of the charms of American patriotism its spontaneity–the fact that in the United States, love for one’s country is freely given, rather than required by the state?

This last point was lost on (or ignored by) Bush, who flogged Dukakis repeatedly throughout the 1988 campaign for vetoing the Pledge of Allegiance bill. It was also lost on McCain when he addressed that year’s Republican convention in New Orleans:

It is outrageous that Governor Dukakis vetoed legislation giving Massachusetts schoolchildren the right to pledge allegiance to that flag at the beginning of the school day.

The real outrage, of course, was McCain’s accusation that Dukakis denied schoolchildren “the right” to pledge allegiance, when in fact Dukakis prevented the state of Massachusetts from forcing schoolchildren to pledge allegiance. Surely intelligent enough to understand this difference, McCain chose to ignore it, then proceeded to illustrate his conceit with a vivid story about his Hanoi Hilton cellmate, Mike Christian. It’s an anecdote McCain has related many times since–quite a moving one when it isn’t used to tar free-speech advocates. Here it is:

Mike got himself a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and fashioned himself a bamboo needle. Over a period of a couple of months, he sewed the American flag on the inside of his shirt. Every afternoon, before we had a bowl of soup, we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of our cell, and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I know that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may not seem the most important or meaningful part of our day now. But I can assure you that–for those men in that stark prison cell–it was indeed the most important and meaningful event of our day.One day, the Vietnamese searched our cell and discovered Mike’s shirt with the flag sewn inside, and removed it. That evening they returned, opened the door of the cell, called for Mike Christian to come out, closed the door of the cell, and, for the benefit of all of us, beat Mike Christian severely for the next couple of hours. Then they opened the door of the cell and threw him back inside. He was not in good shape. We tried to comfort and take care of him as well as we could. The cell in which we lived had a concrete slab in the middle on which we slept. Four naked light bulbs hung in each corner of the room. After things quieted down, I went to lie down to go to sleep. As I did, I happened to look in the corner of the room. Sitting there beneath that dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth, a piece of red cloth, another shirt and his bamboo needle, was my friend Mike Christian. Sitting there, with his eyes almost shut from his beating, making another American flag.

To repeat: Outside the Dukakis context, it’s a deeply moving story. Back in 1988, though, McCain used it to imply a parallel between the North Vietnamese thugs who beat Christian senseless and the Massachusetts governor who vetoed a Pledge of Allegiance bill. This parallel was irresponsible and stupid. North Vietnamese Communists don’t let you express loyalty to anything they don’t sanction. American civil libertarians don’t force you to express loyalty to anything you don’t sanction.

Here is how McCain summed up Christian’s tale in the 1988 speech:

He was not making that flag because it made Mike Christian feel better. He was making that flag because he knew how important it was for us to be able to pledge our allegiance to our flag and our country.

Chatterbox suspects the phrase, “be able to,” was inserted on a late draft to keep McCain from sounding as though he wanted to beat the crap out of anyone who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If so, though, it was too little, too late.