McCain's Character

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 2:56 PM EDT

McCAIN'S CHARACTER....Mark Schmitt on John McCain:

The notable difference, not just in the speeches but in the entirety of the two conventions, was that it is McCain who stands alone. He is the one whose platform is his own personal melodrama, the moment of doubt and pain after which, "I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's." He's the one whose introductory video declared that he "was chosen for this moment," and "the stars are aligned" for his victory. Who's the messiah, now?

Yep. McCain's speech, like the rest of the Republican convention, was an unremitting paean to the character of John McCain. That character is what McCain wants this entire campaign to be about, but only if he can do it on his own terms. Those terms, however, are worth a closer look.

McCain likes to present his past as past and his time in a prison camp as a transformative experience, but the fact is that his experience as a POW transformed nothing. In fact, it amplified his fundamental belief in his own self-righteousness, something he's used ever since as an unending justification for his worst impulses. He was 31 years old when he was captured by the North Vietnamese and 36 when he was released. When he was 43 he abandoned his injured wife for a younger woman and married into a fortune. When he was 51 he intervened with regulators on behalf of his pal Charles Keating and ended up enmeshed in the Keating Five scandal — a scandal he initially tried to blame on his wife when his role became public. When he was 61 he was amusing a partisan crowd with boorish jokes about Chelsea Clinton. When he was 64 he was pandering to Southern racism by refusing to condemn the confederate flag flying over South Carolina's statehouse.

And then there's the second part of this pattern: McCain's famous remorse. As Dan Schnur put it, "He is the best apologizer in politics." And so he is. His treatment of his first wife, he told Rick Warren a few weeks ago, was his "greatest moral failing." Intervening for Charles Keating, he eventually admitted, was "the wrong thing to do." His Chelsea joke was "stupid and cruel and insensitive." His handling of the confederate flag controversy was a "sacrifice of principle for personal ambition."

This year he's 72 but things are no different. Instead of running a decent and honorable campaign, he and his surrogates are reigniting a culture war he doesn't even believe in; relentlessly belittling and trivializing instead of addressing serious issues; repeatedly accusing his opponent of not caring about his country; stubbornly refusing to condemn even the vilest character assassinations; and finally choosing a manifestly unprepared and unvetted running mate in order to gain a momentary political advantage with a Christian right base that has never trusted him but that he needs to win the election. He's doing all this because, as his convention speech made clear, he believes he's on a higher mission. His character is what this campaign is about — or rather his own image of his character — and it's this belief in his own self-righteousness that allows him to justify his every action with a clear conscience. He has to win, you see, for the good of the country. He's the only man who can do it.

And that's the most dangerous attitude of all, because a person who believes that can talk himself into almost anything. And if it doesn't work out? He'll apologize later.