Pious Pair

What makes Sens. McCain and Lieberman so appealing is also what makes them so annoying.

Back when I was a co-host on CNN’s Crossfire, Joe Lieberman and John McCain were known as “7:15 guys”—meaning that the producer could call either of them up at 7:15 p.m., and they’d be on time for a live show at 7:30. (At least, unlike another current senator, they asked what the topic was before dropping important affairs of state and rushing over.) McCain once even came back for a partial rebroadcast at 1 a.m. when, for reasons of verisimilitude, they needed the same senator wearing the same shirt.

To say that two members of the Senate are publicity hounds because they like to be on television is a bit redundant (find a shy senator) and a bit unfair (nobody had a gun to my head either). But even among the self-promoters of Washington, Lieberman and McCain stand out for their enthusiasm and their skill. An important part of that skill, of course, is making enthusiasm look like reluctance. Both are fond of the conceit that they are saddened or alarmed or deeply disturbed by whatever matter impelled them toward the microphones that particular day. The image in your mind, though, if you are an irritated fellow senator or even just a lay cynic, is of Joe or John perusing the newspaper over breakfast coffee as if it were a shopping catalog, looking for something to be saddened by today.

Many a colleague must read a headline like that in the Times the other day, “McCain and Lieberman Offer Bill to Require Cuts in [Greenhouse] Gases” and think, “Gasbag, heal thyself.”

By any objective standards, Lieberman and McCain are among the very best of our national politicians. They are smarter, more interesting, and probably more honest than most of their colleagues. On the issues they choose to spotlight, they’re usually right, often first (or at least ahead of the horde) and occasionally even courageous. It’s not surprising that Lieberman is now a front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination while Al Gore, who put Lieberman on the map, is gone. Nor is it surprising that dreamers of both parties imagine McCain at the heads of their tickets, rescuing the country from a second George W. Bush turn. Yet there is a mystery to solve about both these virtuous politicians: Why, despite their virtues, are they so annoying?

Obviously it is in part because of their virtues, not despite them. Or rather, it is because of the way they wear their virtues on their sleeves. They are, in a word, pious. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, piousness is virtue paying tribute to itself.

Lieberman is literally pious—a devout Orthodox Jew—and that is admirable, especially in a politician with the highest ambitions. But he also has the hectoring, bromidic high-rhetorical style reminiscent of an especially pompous clergyman. (“These are not ordinary times for our country. Therefore those of us who seek our highest office or hold it cannot practice ordinary politics.” When exactly were these ordinary times when ordinary politics, whatever that means, would have been OK by Joe Lieberman?) His jokes are labored and dutiful. All this melds unattractively with the hair-trigger indignation of a more recent but increasingly familiar social type: the ambulance-chasing state attorney general, always scanning the horizon in search of a reason for a press conference. Greenhouse gases today, violent video games tomorrow, some other alliterative outrage the next.

McCain, by contrast, is the naughty boy who gets too much pleasure out of his reputation for naughtiness. While Lieberman always plays it straight, McCain’s performances come with a bit of a wink for those who are looking for one. He makes clear that he gets the joke, which is flattering when you first feel the warmth of his conspiratorial embrace but less so as you come to reflect that the joke may be on you.

Both men are hooked on cheap iconoclasm. How many times can a politician be the rare member of his party who takes the position of the other party on some issue or other before this stops being such a wonderful surprise? McCain and Lieberman have stumbled (perhaps) on a brilliant formula. By being dissidents toward the center, rather than toward the extreme, they get to luxuriate in two of the press’s most popular (and, you would have thought, mutually exclusive) categories simultaneously: courageous outsider and moderate voice of reason.

But moderation, far from courageous, can be too easy. Lieberman opposes President Bush’s tax plan but “said he was intrigued” (the Washington Post) by the idea of tax-free dividends, which is the plan’s centerpiece, even though it “doesn’t do anything” to help get the economy “out of the rut.” Under the nutty conventions of the media, this kind of talk gets you points for statesmanship and sophistication, rather than a penalty for having it every way and a general lack of any meaning whatsoever. McCain, during the Clinton years, used similar techniques to develop a reputation for statesmanship and foreign-policy expertise. His views on the use of American power are easier to admire than to parse.

On the other hand, despite their annoying piousness, either McCain or Lieberman would make a better president than the incumbent or the other obvious alternatives. Now, that’s really annoying.

[Correction: In a recent column, I mistakenly wrote that as a congressman in 1964, the elder George Bush voted against the Civil Rights Act. I should have written that as a Senate candidate in 1964, the elder George Bush publicly opposed the Civil Rights Act. To the many readers who wrote in to accuse me of libeling the former president, I apologize for calling him a congressman in 1964, although he was a congressman later. My point, in any event, was that even good people do things that only look wrong after history turns a page.]