LOS ANGELES -- I would guess that Sen. John McCain has about a 1-in-3 chance of being the next president of the United States. It's a tough slog when you're running under the crest of one of the worst presidencies we've ever had -- in the middle of a recession, and a hateful war and hated occupation he says we will stick with even if it takes a hundred years.
And then there is McCain's age: He would be the oldest man ever to take the office. Add to that his health, his famous rages, and either a naive or casual attitude about ethics.
On the other hand, his 23-year daughter, Meghan, obviously loves him, as she writes regularly in a charming little blog, and he gave a really impressive speech at the World Affairs Council here last Wednesday. Parts of it, about family, duty, honor and country, he delivered with authenticity and passion. Some of it may have been persiflage to persuade Democrats, independents, foreign leaders and anyone with a sense of history that he is not as ignorant as his new sponsor, George W. Bush.
In the fall campaign, McCain will have to explain why he supports a man and a party who managed to take the country from the world's rich superpower to a poor laughing-stock in just seven years. But this day, he talked only about himself -- and, in fact, attacked some of the Republican (and bipartisan) policies that got us into messes at home and abroad.
He did himself proud. First, it is nearly impossible to criticize a man who has actually done and endured the military feats and pain that another old man, Ronald Reagan, won the nation's admiration for just by talking about them for 30 years.
"When I was 5 years old, a car pulled up in front of our house in New London, Conn., and a Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted at my father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. My father immediately left for the submarine base where he was stationed. I rarely saw him again for four years. My grandfather, who commanded the fast carrier task force under Admiral Halsey, came home from the war exhausted from the burdens he had borne, and died the next day. In Vietnam, where I formed the closest friendships of my life, some of those friends never came home to the country they loved so well. I detest war."
That was powerfully personal from a man I generally think is on the wrong side of most issues. What impressed me politically -- and I always thought and wrote that I thought he would be the Republican nominee -- was what followed. He did not attack Bush by name, but he might as well have when he said:
"Leadership today means something different than it did in the years after World War II. ... Today we are not alone. There is the powerful collective voice of the European Union, and there are the great nations of India and Japan, Australia and Brazil, South Korea and South Africa, Turkey and Israel, to name just a few of the leading democracies. There are also the increasingly powerful nations of China and Russia that wield great influence in the international system. In such a world, where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed, the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone. We must be strong politically, economically, and militarily. But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause. ..."
Pretty simple stuff, but President Bush and the high-IQ fools he brought to the Defense and State departments did not believe, or understand, those self-evident truths.
Finally, McCain said something that needs to be said and repeated about many of our dear "friends" in this complicated world:
"For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah of Iran, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family, and even, for a time, on Saddam Hussein. ... (They) clamped down with ever greater repression, while also surreptitiously aiding Islamic radicalism abroad in the hopes that they would not become its victims. It was a toxic and explosive mixture (producing) a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred."
There was more, including some unusual conservative sanity about global warming. Just politics? Maybe. McCain's votes in the Senate are often appalling. But the man is a survivor. He got this far against all odds. It's always possible he can go further -- and higher.
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