Another Perspective

Honor and John McCain

Honor requires loyalty, which isn't the Senator's strongest suit.

By 1.22.08

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In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens identifies John McCain as the presidential candidate of "American honor" and says that that is the reason why, at least within the Republican Party, he is winning this time in spite of having lost last time, in 2000:

Last time, he ran and lost as an anti-establishment, "moderate" Republican. This time, although he continues to depend heavily on the votes of independents, his fundamental appeal is to American honor, which is also the trait he uniquely embodies among the GOP contenders. He seeks to turn his personal code of honor -- the "No Surrender" slogan -- into a national code. He rails against a news media that only begrudgingly recognizes American military gains, repeatedly citing as Exhibit A Time magazine's refusal to name Gen. David Petraeus as its Person of the Year for 2007. Above all, he not only warns against the policy consequences of a failure in Iraq, but also stands against a philosophy, or psychology, that seeks to make a virtue of failure.

I don't disagree with this in general, but I'm not so sure about that word "uniquely." All the Republicans in the race except for Ron Paul are in favor of victory, so far as I am aware, though it is true that Senator McCain's personal history gives him a unique standing to identify himself and his candidacy with that word, as well as with honor. But there are other parts of his record that bring him closer to the news media and (not, of course, coincidentally) the Democratic Party's presidential candidates in his understanding of honor. For such people, as Mr. Stephens says, "if it means anything at all to them, it seems to be mainly in the sense of the good opinion of America's traditional friends, many of whom opposed the Iraq venture from the start."

As an example, I would mention the countenance and the credibility that the senator's animadversions on "torture" by the Bush administration give to America's enemies, for whom the t-word is an invaluable propaganda tool. An essential element of honor has always been loyalty, and loyalty has never been Senator McCain's strongest suit. Rather, he has always been proud of being a "maverick" -- a man who likes to be thought of as one whose friends and comrades are less important to him than his own exquisite conscience. To be sure, we also honor those whose independence of mind makes them less than reliable party men -- if we didn't, there would be no reason for the senator to make such a point of demonstrating such independence -- but it is the honor of the senator rather than his country which is thus enhanced.

Moreover, the media and popular culture routinely exaggerate the extent to which the "whistle-blower" mentality may be expected to trump the honorable one in public life. As a result, Senator McCain has made quite a habit of appealing to higher considerations than mere party, and on every such occasion he has thereby characterized his fellow Republicans as, to say the least, less morally sensitive and clued-in than his good self. Such moral preening and posturing has doubtless played a big part in making him so popular among Democrats and Independents and therefore in making him the front-runner for the nomination at the time of writing. It's his form of "triangulation," just as "compassionate conservatism" was President Bush's in 2000.

Fair enough. A politician, like a soldier, has presumably got to do what he's got to do in order to win. But it also suggests that "honor," in Senator McCain's conception of it, is rather more flexible and convenient for his own purposes than I would find quite comfortable. Moreover, in the case of "torture," he is setting himself up as morally superior to and entitled to judge not just a bunch of Republican Party hacks, not just the unpopular Bush administration, but also the security forces of his country, to whose honor such victories as are won in America's War on Terror will have principally to be credited.

Everyone in those security forces understands that there is a line to be drawn between what is and what is not morally permissible in defending their country from further terrorist attacks, and that there are few easy calls about what falls on one side or the other of that line. But the media and Senator McCain do an immense favor to their country's enemies by suggesting, through their use of the word "torture," that the calls are easy and that we -- "we" in the sense of our side in this long war -- have made them wrongly. There's no reason not to admire Senator McCain for caring so much about the honor of Senator McCain, but we should also recognize that this is not always identical with the honor of his country.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.