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In 1978 Carter became the first president to veto a defense bill, doing so because it included an aircraft carrier that he opposed. By now the military budget was so gutted that aside from parts and maintenance shortages, salaries were near the poverty level. Enlisted men were on food stamps. Morale was dreadful. Drug abuse within the ranks was rampant. Major weapons programs were being cancelled. A bipartisan Senate group including the famous Cold War Democrat Sen. Henry Jackson and Tower successfully opposed much of the mischief of Carter’s veto and in 1979 passed the Nunn-Warner bill raising military pay and living standards and beginning the long revival of the military that in the Reagan years bankrupted the Soviet Union. McCain, from his liaison office, was critical to this legislation.
THIS WAS about the time that I met McCain at Lehman’s home in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. I had known Lehman through the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a major institution of the young conservative movement, and from reading his national security articles. These were grim days for those of us who thought the Cold War could be lost by the Wonderboy’s inane moralizing. A parallel between Jimmy’s famed rebuke of us for our “inordinate fear of Communism,” and Obama’s recent rationalizing that rogue states pursuing nuclear weaponry are “tiny compared to the Soviet Union,” does spring to mind. My admiration for McCain began in those days when I recognized him as profoundly serious about the most deadly threats to the country. My admiration has endured through our disagreements over such things as immigration, campaign finance, and now global warming. Taking one issue with another, McCain is a conservative and a man of honor.
Then, too, he is always good company, quick to laugh, quick with an irreverent joke, but fundamentally serious. I have never had any problem disagreeing with him. With John one can disagree but remain a friend. In this, friendship with John has been similar to my old friendship with Ronald Reagan — though when I disagreed with Reagan I was always wrong. Lehman, I am sure, has also had his disagreements with John, but now the Reaganite secretary of the Navy who built the 600-ship naval force is supporting John. Interviewed for this piece, Lehman told me of one of their earlier disagreements that reveals the senator’s peculiar sense of public service. It was February 1981. Lehman had just become secretary of the Navy. Captain McCain dropped by his office to tell him he was quitting to run for Congress. Lehman objected, telling him he was certain to be promoted to admiral in the autumn and was on track to reach four stars. The young officer who had just been so effectual in reviving the military rejected the stars, stars his father and grandfather had won. He wanted to enter Congress, saying, as Lehman recalls: “The Navy’s in good shape, but I have never seen such a f — -ed up organization as Congress. I can do more to help the country there.”
This is one of the things I have admired in John. Confident and even cocky as he might appear, he is out to do good for the country. I got to know him best in the late 1980s and 1990s, before I became, shall we say, distracted by the Clintons. John was pretty much a Reaganite conservative, especially when it came to pork and to overweening government officials, whether in government or on Capitol Hill. He was also ardent for ethics in government, having been personally stung by his inclusion in the “Keating Five.” The Senate Ethics Committee let him off lightly, finding his relation to Keating merely “questionable.” Yet, that experience bore heavily on his mind. It touched on his sense of honor, and though he is given to easy laughter and irreverent jokes, this third-generation American hero has a strong sense of honor.
Three years ago I invited him to one of AmSpec’s monthly editorial dinners (the Saturday Evening Club, as it is called, though it never meets on Saturdays and is not a club) with conservative journalists and movement conservatives in attendance such as David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. As the senator had crossed swords with some of the invitees in recent years, there were premonitions of the OK Corral in the air. To my surprise everyone walked away pleased by the evening. After an hour of tough questions John left briefly for a vote on the Senate floor, but he returned to stand for over an hour answering still more questions across a wide range of subjects. Ted Olson, the former solicitor general, feared we were imposing on the senator’s time, but John insisted on returning, for he wanted, as he said, “to stay as long as the questions last.” Olson left the dinner, he recalls, “impressed by his knowledge and insight across a broad range of questioning.” Norquist, who at the time had an ongoing disagreement with the senator over tax cuts, left the dinner particularly pleased. He remembers today asking him for his support on the Paycheck Protection initiative to prevent California unions from taking a bite from unwilling workers’ paychecks for their own political use. John agreed to support the initiative and was as good as his word.
Now Norquist is supporting the McCain campaign. “He has proved himself,” Norquist says, “to be the best candidate in the primaries.”
“He will run well with Hispanics,” Norquist believes, “and will prevent them from moving en bloc to the other team.” Norquist also argues that John has settled down as a tax cutter — he certainly struck me as a tax cutter in the Reagan years — and will hold firm “against the labor and trial lawyers’ agenda.”
THE RACE ahead is going to be tight. John Fund sees Obama as a deeply flawed candidate with more bad-news days ahead. Balanced against Obama’s flaws, however, is the anti-Republican climate created by the Republican dullards on Capitol Hill. Also, the McCain campaign needs to be improved. Coming back from the National Rifle Association meeting, where I saw the Straight Talker impress the gun slingers, I was informed by one of the Republican Party’s finest campaign strategists that, though the campaign’s foreign policy staff is competent, its domestic policy staff is disorganized and slow to respond to the exigencies of the campaign trail. At this writing it appears that my old friend has patched up his differences with the conservative rank and file, most of whom also understand that a President Obama would be bad for the economy, bad for social legislation, catastrophic for the courts, and a Carter II in foreign policy.
Still, in the months ahead John McCain needs to speak more to his base and reassure its members. Then there is one thing more. John, find a dramatist among the Republican image consultants to present your extraordinary life of service as the heroic narrative that it is. Humility has no place in modern politics.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online