Michael Crichton called it the "Odd Man Hypothesis." A fictional theory that played a big role in his novel The Andromeda Strain, the hypothesis was that only an unmarried man, a man with nobody else to think of and thus nothing to lose, could be trusted to have clear decision-making capacity in a time of nuclear or biological crisis.
I read the novel years ago. I remembered the hypothesis as being a bit more all-encompassing -- that while it originally applied to an unmarried man, it would by extension apply to any noncomformist, anybody with a particularly strong will and a strong insistence on thinking and acting for himself.
In short, it would apply to anyone who would show, in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's words, "some civic manhood, firm against the crowd."
That slightly exaggerated impression also applied the theory not just to decision-making but also to an ability to overcome obstacles and physical pain: I remembered Crichton's hero, a Dr. Hall, crawling up through a safety compartment with darts sticking him all over his body, darts filled with a substance that should have felled him before he reached the target station where his key could turn the lock that stopped the explosion that destroyed the world -- or something like that. And of course Hall did find the will to crawl the extra few feet and turn the salvific key before passing out.
All of which explains why I thought, until I re-researched it, that the Odd Man Hypothesis might apply to these last weeks of the presidential campaign. Hell, since I like my version of the Odd Many Hypothesis better than Crichton's version, I'll apply it anyway: The Odd Man, described by Crichton as often "irritable," the confirmed noncomformist, the man who will not be held back by sheer consistency (and in my version, often not by logic either), is the only man who can defy gravity, overcome the darts, and by sheer force of will find a way to unlock the Electoral College for the right-leaning party despite all the odds (and his own mistakes) operating against him.
The way I had remembered the Odd Man Hypothesis, it quite clearly might apply to John McCain. Set aside the notion that he is, in many ways, truly odd in the sense of having odd reactions to ordinary events and odd fits of pique when no pique is merited. He is "Odd" in my "Hypothesis" sense because he thinks so differently and acts so differently and reacts so differently from the norm, while staying alive through sheer cussedness, that only a fool would ever completely count him out.
Using a different image, National Review's Rich Lowry a few weeks back described McCain as the cartoon character who had run off a cliff but who was churning his legs so hard and flapping his arms so rapidly that he just wouldn't fall, not for the longest time, even though he was churning nothing but air at about 2,000 feet. But even the Lowry/Road Runner-like cartoon character eventually does fall, with all the appropriate sound effects; yet the Odd Man, in contrast, somehow finds a way to hold on and triumph for his cause, whatever that cause may be.
JOHN McCAIN is an SOB. He has fits of rage for no good reason. He takes umbrage for no good reason. He holds grudges for no good reason. He creates scapegoats for no good reason. He picks fights for no good reason. He plays everything by gut instinct and appears never to do long-term planning…yes, for no good reason. And sometimes he completely breaks. And yet… and yet, the man ain't dead. He has run the worst Republican presidential campaign since 1964 -- far worse than Bob Dole's oddly valiant effort, and even worse than the pathetic 1992 race of the elder Bush -- and yet he actually still has a chance, with less than three weeks to go, if only he can gain some traction.
Over already? Hell, no. When Ronald Reagan debated Jimmy Carter one week before the 1980 Election Day, the two men were essentially tied in the polls. Reagan won by 10 points, and garnered 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. Repeat that: ten points in just one week. John McCain has three weeks. And he has an opponent who has shown a bizarre and extremely disturbing pattern of consorting with radicals and crooks. Yes, a pattern -- a pattern of bad judgment, of associating with bad characters, of playing the bad old political games, of voting for the most leftist legislation, and a pattern of saying things that show disdain for Americans who don't breathe his rarified leftist air. It's a pattern that could and should still scare off voters in droves.
And John McCain is running at a time when an extraordinarily jumpy economy has people on edge. People on edge can jump either way. Right now they are jumping toward Obama's "cool" as opposed to McCain's mercurial intensity. But three weeks from now, with who-knows-what other unforeseen events in these most unsettling of times, the voters could just as easily jump away from Obama's unknowns and towards the crusty familiarity of McCain. Anything could happen.
But if anything good -- meaning anything conducive to a government not utterly dominated by leftists and which does not appoint leftists as federal judges -- is to happen, then John McCain himself, flying solo as only the Odd Man can, is going to need to be the one who makes it happen. And tonight's debate might be his last chance, because only with an audience big enough to see "it" happen can whatever happens make a big enough difference in the race.
SOMEHOW, SOME COMPLETELY unexpected way, McCain must rattle Obama tonight. The two men will, I understand, be sitting at the same table with moderator Bob Schieffer. Without losing his own cool or his sense of humor, McCain must find a way to puncture Obama's air of placid command. Maybe it might involve some subtle violation of Obama's physical space. Maybe it might involve a heretofore unknown Obama sore spot. Maybe it might be a word or phrase Obama can't stand. Maybe it will be an argument that Obama has no answer for. Whatever it is, it must rattle Obama, must rattle him badly. It must show the American people that Obama can't be trusted, or believed, or admired.
McCain, meanwhile, must find a way to reassure Americans that he himself can be trusted. The Navy man must offer a safe port in a storm. Last week I outlined in a blog post how I would advise McCain to talk about the economy. Or, if he wants a different tack, I've twice suggested a proposal that can shake up the race by in one fell swoop offering to reverse the outsourcing of jobs, protect pension plans and retirement accounts, and bring the single biggest lobbying reform to Washington, ever.
It will be a neat trick to rattle Obama while simultaneously either reassuring Americans or exciting them about a new proposal. But it's the only hope left for John McCain. And McCain is just the cussed, unconventional, willful, irritable, Odd Man to pull it off.
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