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Captain McCain

Tough and mature, he is conservatism's best chance to win the White House against a passe "community organizer" and standard-issue left-liberal Democrat.

By 7.29.08

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This article appears in the July-August 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

MY FELLOW SPECTATORIANS, whether you be conservative, libertarian, or a lively blend, let us consider the next most likely residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with particular focus on Sen. John McCain. He is the Republican contender, having for the past 22 years represented Arizona in the Senate from the very seat that Barry Goldwater vacated. His opponent will apparently be Sen. Barack H. Obama, who has represented Illinois in the Senate since beating a former AmSpec summer intern, Alan Keyes, in 2004. Is there, as the political philosophers might inquire, a dime's worth of difference between these presidential contenders? Does it matter which one will preside over next spring's White House Easter Egg Roll -- if there is to be another Easter Egg Roll. Remember, our nation's Muslims might object, and also our Hindus and maybe even the ACLU.

I think it does matter. The rudderless Republicans have lost both houses of Congress and will probably lose more seats in the autumn, as they continue their spending revels and their tergiversations from Reagan conservatism. Our economy is fragile and unlikely to be strengthened by the Democrats' promised panaceas: higher taxes, more government regulators, more bureaucrats, and a lunge at the country's health providers with the intent of transforming them into the efficiency experts at the U.S. Postal Service. Moreover, there are federal judicial appointments to make, a war on terror to fight, and extravagant government spending to be scotched.

Senator McCain brings with his candidacy a life spent in public service, on which I shall presently elaborate with insights from Grover Norquist, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, and another longtime AmSpec colleague, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. McCain's public service, however, is not of the kind bragged about by so many conventional Washington figures, which is to say, a life of personal hustle, shameless self-promotion, but with one's muzzle deep in the public trough and one's paw outstretched to every passing lobbyist. Public service for McCain began in the United States Navy following the exemplary careers of his father and grandfather. Then in 1982 he won a House seat. Then he replaced the retiring Senator Goldwater.

SENATOR OBAMA too brings with his candidacy a life of public service. He claims it is a different kind of public service than that of "the status quo in Washington," though it looks like status quo Washington to me -- at least as lived by the Clintons, the Gores, and every Kennedy ever heard of. Obama has been a political hustler throughout his adult life, so much so that by the end of his 2004 election to the Senate he was sending aides to Iowa to test his presidential prospects. That was a mere four years ago! Before that he spent eight years as an Illinois state senator, and before that he was a "community organizer."

Struggling against the "inevitable" 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama began to let the air out of Hillary's inevitability while speaking in Iowa last November. There he sniped at the frontrunner for being, as the Washington Times reported, "locked in 1960s social and cultural battles." He also alluded to her 1990s controversies. Yet being a "community organizer" in the late 20th century is sooooo 1960s. It is right out of the playbook of Saul Alinsky, Hillary's 1960s radical guru. It means that by the mid-1980s Obama was going into poor neighborhoods and organizing anger, channeling it into still more welfare and more government programs, perhaps late-night basketball games (once beheld as an enlightened antidote to urban crime), medical and psychiatric clinics, perhaps curbside aerobics -- but little that would grow the economy and create jobs sustainable in the free market.

Recently an Obama adviser told the New York Review of Books' Elizabeth Drew that "[h]is being a community organizer is the fundamental insight and philosophy of his campaign," whereupon Drew enthuses that this piece of 1960s nonsense is "a fresh, even revolutionary idea about how to govern." Note she is not talking about governing a Chicago slum but rather the United States of America. At times I wonder about Miss Drew's inability to slap her thigh and let out a hearty belly laugh. Something is wrong here.

It is in Obama's origins as a "community organizer" that we see how truly passe he is. He may be 14 years Hillary's junior, but his roots in radicalism are surprisingly similar to hers as an acolyte of Alinsky and a defender of Black Panthers both at the Yale Law School and at a left-wing (viz. Communist!) law firm. Spectator readers have been aware of Hillary's 1960s radicalism since the magazine's earliest reports in 1992. Now even mainstream journalists are reporting it (see the May 19, 2008 Washington Post) upon detecting hypocrisy in her attack on Obama's friendship with Bill Ayers. In the heady days of the 1960s Revolution That Never Came, Ayers was bombing government buildings, among them the Pentagon. Years later in Chicago, while serving with Obama in foundation work, Ayers was brazenly unrepentant. In fact, immediately after 9/11 he announced, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Hillary at least respects her supporters' intelligence enough to lie about her origins. Obama is sufficiently vain to think he can dupe his supporters by presenting his radical origins as progressive, not "the status quo in Washington." Well, he has hoodwinked Miss Drew. Perhaps mainstream media will be as slow in catching on to Obama as they were to catching on to Hillary.

OBVIOUSLY TO the keen political eye, Obama is a standard-issue left-liberal Democrat, with a resume very similar to the Clintons', albeit without the shattered integrity. Last year in The Clinton Crack-Up I predicted that the younger generation of Democrats would challenge Hillary's nomination and that 2008 would be the last battle between the left wing and the right wing of the historic 1960s generation. Ironically, though the younger generation has whipped Clinton, my prediction is being vindicated. The younger generation's 46-year-old candidate with the rants of the Rev. Wright and other antique radicals whistling in his ears is going to give the left-wing youth of the 1960s one more run against their right-wing rivals.

McCain, as the New York Times's Sam Tanenhaus recently observed, is a member of the 1950s generation but with a rebellious streak. Toughened and matured by Vietnam, he returned to America and, as we shall see, took on the Carter administration's neglect of the military. While doing so he fell in with senior movement conservatives such as Sen. John Tower and with young 1960s movement conservatives such as Dick Allen, later Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Ed Feulner, later the head of the Heritage Foundation, and John Lehman, President Reagan's secretary of the navy. All support him today. With some anomalies, McCain's platform will be an amalgam of their work. My prediction that the 2008 presidential race will be the last great battle between the 1960s left and the 1960s right is holding up, though the standard-bearer from the left is by 1960s demographics wet behind the ears and the standard-bearer from the right is long in the tooth.

Ironically, and notwithstanding McCain's waywardness, he is conservatism's best chance to win the White House: for he can attract Reagan Democrats and independents. Many conservatives have been understandably critical of some of the Arizona senator's feints to the Kultursmog, but for the most part he is conservative, a maverick conservative yet one who will be campaigning on a platform shaped by four decades of the modern conservative movement's policy desiderata. Moreover, whereas the Republican backsliders on the Hill have deceived us, McCain has been forthright in his disagreements with us. We know where he stands.

Disagreements aside, McCain basically stands with us. Through all the primaries and the months of Republican decline, McCain has survived as conservatism's best candidate against the phony herald of change now sermonizing for the Democrats. My estimate is that an Obama presidency would be an amusing approximation of the Carter administration, complete with vaporous moralizing and foreign policy bungling. Suspicion that Obama is a reincarnation of Carter increases my interest in a McCain-Obama match up.

IT WAS during the Carter administration that McCain, then a young naval officer, developed the shrewd political instincts that have served him well through 26 years of political campaigns. It was also during the Carter administration that he demonstrated managerial skills that he has yet to brag about, managerial and leadership skills that Obama gives no evidence of possessing. In the campaign ahead one of McCain's most worrisome weaknesses is his reluctance to brag. In politics humility is not a virtue -- breathtaking vanity is. Obama has risen from obscurity by promising to banish politics from politics, though politics is about all he has ever done. McCain has managed billion-dollar budgets, commanded a 75-aircraft squadron, and shaped historic legislation -- all before entering politics. I suggest he get the word out.

Returning from five and a half years of torture and unattended wounds, Lt. Cmdr. McCain was told by the doctors that he would never be able to fly combat aircraft again. What the military calls "flight status" was beyond him. He had suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, a broken shoulder, and the consequences of stab wounds to the groin and ankle -- none of which had properly healed while he was being tortured by the North Vietnamese. Yet in a show of exemplary fortitude he undertook grueling physical therapy and proved the doctors wrong. He next took command of the Navy's largest squadron, flying A-7 attack aircraft requiring a budget of more than a billion dollars. But this was post-Vietnam, and, as with so many other sectors of the military, "Skipper" McCain's squadron was short on parts and maintenance crews. Some 25 of his 75 aircraft were permanently disabled "hangar queens." McCain got them all up and running.

Looking back on McCain's revival of his squadron, Lehman, a friend of his from the 1970s, assesses it "a near miracle of leadership and management." Yet the experience made McCain cognizant of the costs of President Jimmy Carter's economizing. McCain became Navy liaison to the Senate and in that capacity endeavored to improve procurement and living standards for military personnel. It was during this period, from 1978 into the early 1980s, that he met and worked with such conservatives as Tower, Allen, and Lehman.

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.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.