Another Perspective

John McCain and John Donne

Perspectives on experience and leadership, with some help from Saul Bellow.

By 10.31.08

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No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

That, surely, puts the argument for "experience" clearly. No man has the requisite experience to be president of the United States, because there is no such thing. One can argue, as the Republicans did not sufficiently during this campaign, that their opponent's record, a string of part-time jobs that he never seemed to be truly engaged in, showed an unwillingness to learn even what it means to deeply know a trade -- let alone the unattainable experience that a president platonically should have.

However, the point the preacher is making here about experience is that wherever it was acquired, it did something to your soul and your character, "made [you] fit for God," meaning you can say you did what he intended you to do on this earth and thus are ready for the next stage in his plan for you. John McCain understands this, and he shows in his life of service that he knows and serenely accepts the fate his character made for him.

The Arizona senator's reticence in underscoring the most harrowing time of this service reflects a certain tact, a kind of decency that I fear is lost on many Americans today, poorly educated and accustomed to an in-your-face culture, vulgar and exhibitionist. But real leadership consists of correcting errors however widely held. Or men would not write sermons on how to make oneself fit for God.

I think even many Republican militants do not get it, or they would have found a way to put the question of character front and center in this campaign.

Maybe they sense it would be lost, no one cares. They are mistaken -- look at how voters reacted to the guns and religion slip, in essence a window into Illinois senator's character. Perhaps Republicans can be forgiven for not knowing how to talk about these things. As I think I mentioned in this space lately, I often used Kipling's "If" when I was charged with giving adolescents instruction in English and morals (the latter was an assignment I kept to myself, grounds for firing, or a lawsuit against the district, if I advertised it), and it usually worked fairly well. It is, of course, a poem about character. But I never found a colleague willing to try it; indeed, I found few -- none outside New York -- who even knew it. I hate to sound like a grouch or a pedant, but it is worth recalling that Kipling was a true friend and admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican whom, one may suggest, John McCain most resembles. Wired political op's could benefit, as my students did, from reading their correspondence instead of hyperventilating over poll data.


BUT WHO AM I to talk? I happened to be with Bellow once in my father's library and, with Passover approaching, we were discussing exile and redemption and alienation and carnal love and fortitude and the connections of souls, and I mentioned that I could not find Donne's famous work on solidarity in the beautiful old Complete Poems edition my dad owned. It's not there, Saul said with the gentlest note of irritation at my mistake, it's a devotion, not a poem. And he began reciting it,

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

This piece worked less well than "If," only in part, I think, due to the geographic trope on which its best-known passage depends,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

The problem was that most of these young people had at best a dim sense of what a continent is, and an island, and even with a large map on the wall most of the time they could not show me England. I really cannot complain since their teachers often had some difficulty with this as well. But the graver problem was the failure of the kids' -- and their teachers' -- imagination before the sermon's thesis.

This was vexing because this thesis really could be learned, and readily grasped. But the schools were overwhelmed by false pedagogy that relied on slogans like the Maoist-sounding "we are building a community of learners," which of course no one was doing. And it is fortunate no one was, notwithstanding for the wrong reasons. A school stands in a community, and it is or used to be central to this community's life and purpose. Lacking this, why should teachers, let alone administrators, know why their charges should learn a sentence like this one:

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


I RECALL MY FATHER joined us about here -- he had been downstairs getting the wine for lunch -- and he made a point he and his old friend agreed on (they disagreed on much, being intellectuals), namely that Donne's insistence on the sharing of personal suffering is foreign to the modern, I mean the contemporary, imagination. He recited,

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours.

And continued:

Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.

Which provoked a joke about someone in search of trouble and then another one about my father's phenomenal literary memory, then a digression on a recent comment by the prime minister about France -- we were in Paris -- not being in a position to take on "toute la misère du monde," immigrants. Though a Socialist, Michel Rocard's background is such that even at his most technocratic (he is an awful orator) and stupid (as when talking about Israel), he reveals his austere Christian roots. Humor and politics having got their due, the two of them returned to the question we had got on to, whether a man untested by affliction could be trusted to do anything -- anything at all, when you think of it.

Donne was in any case describing man's relationship to God, not defining fitness criteria for this or that job or high office. Affliction is treasure, he says, and No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. Maturity, ripeness -- qualities one wants in the president, on whose decisions the Free World's continued freedom largely depends -- are not necessarily functions of age. But one does see them in the devotion a man gives to his calling. Americans are comparing two senators now and thinking, I should hope, less about what each promises to give us right now and here than about what he has given his country. He is going to have to give more in the years ahead, as we will all.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.