Eight years ago, I was writing a regular monthly column for the Providence Journal. On the eve of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, I wrote a column entitled “John McCain, the Anti-Clinton.” Although I supported George Bush during the primaries, I thought it was important to lay out the reasons for McCain’s appeal. I concluded that the main thing McCain had going for him was character, and after eight years of Clinton, this was not unimportant.
Here’s how I concluded the column:
But in today’s political environment, the real reason Americans stress his military service seems to be that it serves as a surrogate for character, a virtue notably absent during the Clinton years, and one for which Americans seem to long. That goes a long way toward explaining Sen. McCain’s appeal: more than any other candidate, he is the anti-Clinton.
The Clintons purport to represent the best of the Baby-Boomer generation. According to the dominant mythology of the 60s, the Baby-Boomers that mattered were the “best and the brightest,” those destined to make the world new by ending poverty, racism, and war. For the most part, the touchstone of Baby-Boomer existence itself was opposition to the Vietnam War.
But while such people endlessly employed the rhetoric of sacrifice, they actually sacrificed little or nothing. This has led skeptics to conclude that much of the “idealistic” opposition to the Vietnam War was a cynical ploy to cloak concern for their personal safety.
John McCain is the representative of the forgotten Baby-Boomers, who, unlike the Clintons, didn’t just talk about sacrifice, but actually placed themselves willingly on the altar of their country. While the Clintons were preparing the groundwork for their careers in the law and politics, John McCain was a naval aviator flying combat missions over North Vietnam. At a minimum, this meant that at least once a day, he sat in the cockpit of an airplane that was hurled violently from the flight deck of a pitching and rolling aircraft carrier. That was the easy part. Next, he had to dodge Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as he carried out his mission. If he accomplished his mission, he then had to land on the same pitching and rolling carrier from which he had hurtled earlier. Again, if successful, his plane would be stopped violently when its “tailhook” engaged an arresting cable on the flight deck.
That was John McCain’s day-to-day existence. But he was also in his aircraft on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal when a freak accident triggered a catastrophic conflagration that cost the lives of hundreds of sailors and almost led to the loss of the ship. And of course, he was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, during which time he was subjected to treatment that civilized people cannot even imagine.
Americans admire Sen. McCain because of the character he demonstrated in the crucible of war. They also admire him for a related quality, his sense of honor. Honor is an old-fashion virtue that is often the object of ridicule in a liberal society. But without honorable men, liberal society cannot survive. The American Founders understood this. The signers of the Declaration of Independence mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their “sacred Honor.”
The progression in this passage is important. Life is basic but needs other qualities to make it worth living. Fortune, an indication that Providence has smiled on one’s endeavors, is one such quality. But for the Founders, Honor was the virtue that represented the pinnacle of human life. A dishonorable life was worse than poverty or death.
The quintessential nineteenth century liberal, John Stuart Mill, expressed this view well. “War is an ugly thing,” he wrote, “but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” Perhaps this passage explains why John McCain’s military service looms so large in the diminished age of Clinton.
I believe that what I wrote then is still relevant today. Many conservatives—Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and the editorial board of National Review to name a few—have made clear their principled opposition to McCain. I am not enamored of his policies either. I would prefer Ronald Reagan, but last I heard, he isn’t running.
By all means, do your best to get Romney—with all his shortcomings—the nomination. But if McCain is the nominee, he will still be a better president than the Democratic hopefuls. If he were the Republican nominee, I would support him on the basis of his likely policy prescriptions alone; as problematic as they may be, they can’t be any worse than that which will be pushed by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
But McCain is far superior to the Democratic contenders on the basis of character and virtue. For instance, once the North Vietnamese found out that McCain was the son of the U.S. military commander in the Pacific theater, which included Vietnam, they offered him the chance to go home before his POW comrades. Had he accepted, it would have been a great propaganda coup for the Vietnamese communists. But he refused. That’s character and it ought to mean something even to those who are not convinced of his conservative bona fides.
Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.