I’ve just read the Meridian, Mississippi speech with which John McCain launched his “biography tour,” and found it more interesting and troubling than I expected.
Most obviously, I can’t recall any major speech by a president or presidential candidate that was devoted so thoroughly to the subject of the speaker’s own family background–not just the immediate family (which, for example, was the background theme in Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, and in Bill Clinton’s “Place Called Hope” speech, and is obviously important to Barack Obama’s “story”), but the Family Heritage. McCain goes into considerable detail to establish himself as the scion of a very old (by American standards) and very distinguished warrior tribe, whose traditions he first spurned and then half-heartedly embraced, before rediscovering them in the crucible of his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton.
In so doing, McCain runs afoul of two pretty important American political traditions: ambivalence towards military leaders in politics, and an expectation of modesty about the accomplishments of one’s forebears.
On the first point, yes, five (W.H. Harrison, Jackson, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower) or perhaps six (if you add the planter-soldier George Washington) American presidents were professional soldiers. Several others were wartime military leaders but not really career military professionals (Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt). But the list of military leaders who sought and failed to obtain the presidency is equally long, from Winfield Scott and George McClellan to Scott’s namesake W.S. Hancock, to Leonard Wood, to Douglas MacArthur, to Alexander Haig, to Wes Clark. And among those who succeeded, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower were almost universally revered national heroes of an unparalleled magnitude.
While there’s nothing uncommon or surprising about John McCain’s highlighting of his own military record, his decision to identify himself as primarily the product of the military ethic, by family background as well as by personal experience, is unusual, and perhaps risky in a country that has always honored professional warriors but has also insisted on civilian control of the military. It’s no accident that the last Annapolis graduate to become president, Jimmy Carter, chose to identify himself as a peanut farmer rather than as a nuclear submarine officer.
McCain’s insistence on establishing a distinguished pedigree is counter-intuitive as well. The current president of the United States, after all, went to inordinate lengths to create a public persona remote from his actual aristocratic background as grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a president. Another president who often touted his own military service–John F. Kennedy–did so in no small part to provide a common link to Americans who might otherwise dwell on his father’s wealth and political connections. FDR’s polio, and TR’s cowboy-hunter-soldier machismo, offset their elite backgrounds. And most American presidents and presidential candidates have talked about their ancestors mainly to stress their humble roots, and thus accentuate their own accomplishments. In the Meridian speech and elsewhere, John McCain seems to be visibly struggling, even today, to live up to his family’s martial tradition. It’s all pretty remarkable.
The theme of the callow young man achieving maturity and then complete identification with his patrimony is as old as the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It’s complicated in McCain’s case by the fact that his callowness, by his own account, appears to have survived the Hanoi Hilton and persisted well into late-middle-age and into his political career (viz. the admitted serial carousing, not to mention the Keating Five).
It’s tempting to speculate that by design or accident, McCain’s self-description is an analogy for his latest political transformation from the “maverick” who flirted (or at a minimum, whose staff flirted) with becoming John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004 to today’s reinvented conservative. He’s rebelled against his heritage, but now, in the crucible of this campaign, McCain is falling back on the fundamentals of family, faith, party, ideology, and yes, maybe even a hereditary strain of military jingoism, and is determined, as prodigals often are, to live up to the heritage to a fault. This must be immensely reassuring to the conservatives who have for so long mistrusted him. And it’s an appeal that is also seductive for the many Americans who constantly struggle to reconcile libertarian impulses with the tug of traditions, even bad traditions.
Maybe this is all emphemeral, and at some point John McCain will abandon the biographical message to focus on policy issues. But Democrats need to understand what he’s trying to do in presenting himself as the embodiment of the Prodigal Son seeking to lead the Prodigal Nation back to its heritage of greatness, and react accordingly. In 1996 Bob Dole offered himself as “the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth… a time of tranquillity, faith, and confidence in action.” Bill Clinton successfully turned that offer into a contrast between nostalgic reaction and progressive action. At present, McCain is advancing a more appealing version of Dole’s political package, gussied up with plenty of Prodigal policy offerings that will make it harder to typecast him as reactionary. Exposing him will not just be a matter of deriding media credulity or hammering his voting record in the Senate. It will require an unwavering spotlight on his basic message and its troubling implications.
In a 1999 review of McCain’s memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” and of Robert Timberg’s hagiographical “John McCain: An American Odyssey,” Nathanial Tripp offered this assessement of both books and of the martial hymn that inspired the title of the first:
The problem with this hymn, and these books, is that they are not about leadership, they are about followership. Admittedly, the hymn’s type of rhetoric seems to have an almost narcotic effect on some voters, but distrust of authority is a salient legacy of Vietnam. Furthermore, civil leadership demands humanity, compassion and the skills of negotiation and compromise, which are often contrary to the military mind. Chimerically, McCain may go from the Keating scandal to campaign reform, from heavy smoking to anti-tobacco legislation, setting a zigzag course toward the White House and defying those who will put him in a box. But there is something hauntingly familiar about his confusion of mission with personal ambition.
This remains an important observation. If John McCain’s main credential for presidential leadership is his “followership” of the military traditions of his forefathers and the ideological traditions of the GOP, then the rest of us should rightly object to the harnessing of our future to his past.