All successful politicians must have at least some talent for telling lies about what’s in their hearts and convincing people that it is the truth. But Sen. John McCain has a unique genius for telling the truth from his heart and making people believe that he is lying. And these people are his supporters! They admire him as a straight-talking truth–teller, and they forgive him for taking positions on big issues that they find repellent on the grounds that he doesn’t really mean what he says.
“Oh, he has to say that to get the Republican nomination,” explain many Democrats with girlish crushes on the charming, funny, intelligent, and heroic Republican senator from Arizona, and/or a special loathing of their party’s own star, the junior senator from New York. “That” might refer to McCain’s strong right-to-life stand on abortion, or his strong support for the war in Iraq, or his recent rapprochement with Jerry Falwell. They respect McCain as an honest man among sneaks, a straight shooter amid bull artists. They long, understandably, for some fresh air in the fetid atmosphere of politics. And McCain delivers that.
Even better, he delivers the fresh air without the cloying aroma of piety. Or rather, he can be pious, but the piety is diluted and made bearable by the knowing wink. He makes jokes at his own expense. That’s attractive in a politician, but sometimes it is nothing more than a party trick. McCain goes further: Like Bob Dole, he makes jokes—mean jokes, in public—about others. That takes more wit and more guts. McCain is a good kind of cynic: He shares his cynicism with the rest of the class. The cynicism makes the piety bearable, while the piety makes the cynicism acceptable.
Journalists love him, of course. His frankness flatters us, and he flatters us more directly as well. Visiting a big convention of journalists last fall, McCain joined a group that was gambling at the hotel casino until the wee hours. In his speech the next morning, he cleverly nailed his audience and himself by declaring that he was happy to be among “my base.”
McCain’s “base” (poli-talk for his most loyal supporters) is actually larger than that. In a presidential run, he would have the votes of millions who disagree with him on major issues but like him anyway. His challenge is to get the votes of more people who agree with him. The fact that his base of support is people who disagree with him explains both why so many ideological soul mates dislike him, and why they may support him anyway. It’s because they think he is their best shot at winning. Thus if McCain becomes president, it will be the result of a cynical calculation by people who don’t like him even though they agree with him, on top of support by people who disagree with him but admire his lack of cynicism.
As his pre-campaign for president, McCain is delivering four university graduation speeches. He gave two this week, at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and at Columbia. His words to these two different audiences are quite similar. Read the texts. They are marvelous: witty, self-mocking, above all, interesting. When McCain climbs onto an old war horse like, say, filial obligation, you really do not know where he may take it. It would be wonderful to have a president whose speeches were not a duty to listen to.
But how many Americans and Iraqis should die so that we can enjoy entertaining presidential speeches? If you support the war, that is a nonsense question. If you don’t, it is more pressing. McCain is admirably clear: He supported going to war and he supports continuing it until … well, not so clear, but longer than most Democrats would care for. His discussion of the Iraq war in the Liberty University address is a bit of a cop-out. It’s mostly about how we all have the duty to express our beliefs and the right to disagree.
This discussion is also a guarded reference to McCain’s famous feud with Jerry Falwell. In 2000, McCain called Falwell ”an evil influence” on the Republican Party. That won McCain a lot of the points he now enjoys among people to his left. Now he needs some to his right. But if the subject is ”evil,” it is not good enough simply to say that we all have the right to disagree. And ”evil” is not too strong a word for Jerry Falwell. Respectful disagreement may be possible with James Dobson, and ”silly” or ”senile” might be a more apt description of Pat Robertson. But Falwell is a man who promoted tapes during the Clinton administration accusing the president of murdering political opponents. Sure, he has the right to say whatever he wants. But that is not the key point about Falwell. McCain made the key point six years ago. Today, he ducks it.
McCain is like another larger-than-life character in American politics: Colin Powell. Both men are so admirable and so likable that people convince themselves against all evidence that Powell or McCain must agree with them on the big issues. In Powell’s case, the theory always was that he was speaking truth to power from within, while telling the necessary public fibs to hold onto the privileged position this service required. With McCain, something more magical is going on. He says plainly that he is for the war, or against abortion choice, and people hear the opposite. It’s a gift, I guess.