The Current Crisis

Tough Leadership

John McCain's executive edge.

By 6.12.08

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WASHINGTON -- Think of it! Since early 2007 ambitious politicians have cluttered up the news with their campaigns for the presidency. Giants such as Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson have tantalized us with the possibility that America could, under their leadership, become the new Athens. Finally, three months ago the field was reduced to three candidates, and now it is down to two. Usually the last leg of a presidential campaign begins after Labor Day. From all I can tell, the last leg of Campaign '08 is already under way. Every day until Election Day, November 4, the American people are going to be assailed by the two candidates' clever rhetorical sallies, shocking exposes, pratfalls, and all the other cheap tricks that contribute to a candidate's presidential campaign. Is the thing possible? Will anyone still be paying attention come November?

Half the American people do not vote, and after this marathon campaign that number might well increase, owing to one of history's rarely noted undercurrents, sheer boredom. Yes, dissatisfaction is an undercurrent of history. That is what the Prophet Obama is relying on when he intones his mantra: "Change!" Nor is he the first presidential candidate to use this mantra. Bill Clinton relied on it in 1992. Well, boredom might also explain the electorates' yearning for "Change," and if Americans are bored after this election their boredom will be understandable.

However, another element of history is biography, a fact agreed upon by Carlyle and Emerson. The Obama biography is brief, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested in deriding his lack of "experience." Obama's is an interesting biography, but it does not recommend him for the presidency, not yet. Senator John McCain's biography by contrast is vast, and it does indeed recommend him for the presidency.

In preparing an essay on McCain recently, I took the occasion to review the McCain biography. It revealed two things that the candidate will undoubtedly be emphasizing. The first is character. The second is management. Consider the second first, for McCain's achievements as a manager are unusual for a senator. Senators usually have little record as managers. That is why governors make superior presidential candidates. An American president has to manage the largest organization in the world. As is typical of a senator, Obama has little managerial achievement. In fact there is only one. He organized Chicago community activists to channel money into their neighborhoods. That is not much of an achievement when compared to the achievements in McCain's biography, and Obama's community organizing put him in with some decidedly unsavory characters, for instance, the 1960s radical, Bill Ayers, an unrepentant bomb maker, and Antoin Rezko, the recently convicted conman.

McCain's management skills have yet to be publicized. After he came back from his five and a half years as a POW, McCain took command of the Navy's largest squadron, a force of A-7 attack aircraft. It was the largest by a lot. Most such squadrons in those days numbered 12 to 25. McCain's numbered 75, putting him in charge of a budget of over a billion dollars. This was during the post-Vietnam years, when Washington was cutting back on the military budget, and the McCain squadron was short on parts, maintenance crews, and even fuel. Some 25 of his aircraft were permanently disabled "hangar queens." Morale was low. In what John Lehman, secretary of the navy in the Reagan Administration, has called "a near miracle of leadership and management," McCain restored morale and got all 75 A-7s up and running. Fellow officers did not think it was possible, which brings us to the question of character.

After leaving Hanoi, McCain was never expected to fly again, such was the condition of his poorly treated injuries. The injuries included two broken arms, a broken leg, a broken shoulder, and the consequences of stab wounds to the groin and ankle. Navy doctors told him he would never again achieve "flight status." In a show of exemplary fortitude, the young pilot undertook grueling physical therapy. He not only flew again but he took command of his squadron and rebuilt it. Then he became Navy liaison to the Senate, where, by working with hawkish Republicans and Democrats, he helped reverse the decline of the military and lay the foundation for the Reagan military buildup that bankrupted the USSR.

In McCain's biography we see leadership, managerial skills, an ability to work with senators on both sides of the aisle, and a vigilance about national security that we do not see in his opponent. McCain will not need the cheap tricks of a presidential campaign to win on Election Day. His biography will be sufficient.

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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.