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Jewish World Review March 1, 2000 / 24 Adar I, 5760

Chris Matthews

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John McCain fits a hero's profile -- JOHN MCCAIN fits the mold of American hero. A man who displayed conspicuous courage in youth now offers a compelling vision in his maturity.

Having sustained torture and near-death as a Vietnam POW, he has focused his campaign, and increasingly the country's attention, on the need for drastic reform in Washington.

This is not to predict McCain's victory, simply to argue that what he says about the "Iron Triangle" of lobbyists, corporations and lawmakers in Washington is as undeniable as his courage in the "Hanoi Hilton." Also that his election this November would fit neatly in the romance that has graced so much American history.

Think of Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy.

TR won the governorship of New York and the vice presidency after news reports that his Rough Riders captured San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

Eisenhower went to the White House after leading the Allies to victory in Europe during World War II. It's no big deal being president, his grandson and biographer once remarked, for a guy who defeated the Nazis.

Kennedy succeeded Ike in no small part due to his heroics in saving his crewmen after his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

In each case, we see the same pattern: courage in battle, vision in politics.

TR fought his own party to reform the civil service, end the corrupt patronage system and bust the trusts. Eisenhower brought an era of peace and prosperity by giving the country a breather from the long period of Democratic rule and by moving his own party to modernize. JFK ended his party's lip service to civil rights in the North and West and collaboration with the segregationists down South. A Cold Warrior, his greatest legacies were the Peace Corps and the nuclear test ban treaty.

McCain may someday follow in their footsteps. He was a Navy pilot who took risks flying over Hanoi. When his captors offered him early release because of his father's rank as commander-in-chief of the Pacific navy, he adhered to the military code: first prisoners taken, first to go home.

For that decision, he would spend years in solitary confinement in the "Hanoi Hilton." He returned home with his limbs broken, his honor intact.

Now he faces the angry jibes of his political rivals.

"John McCain has spent 18 years in Washington, you know, triple the time he spent, you know, over in Vietnam in a POW camp," said John Engler, Michigan governor and George Bush promoter.

What the governor must not know himself is that Americans do not deride courage in war as just another item on a politician's resume. Teddy Roosevelt would not be on Mt. Rushmore were it not for that other hill his Rough Riders climbed in Cuba. Smiling Ike would not have been liked so much had we not first seen his frowning, yet confident face as the troops embarked for Normandy.

There is something primordial in all this. Americans were not the first people to look for their chief among their bravest youth. Human nature suggests that we seek courage among those who display it early and patriotism from those who show it under the worst possible condition.

This does not mean that gallantry in war is a prerequisite for strong leadership. Franklin Roosevelt proved his stuff when struck by polio in young adulthood. Ronald Reagan displayed his patriotic fervor through years in the political wilderness. His love of country was so conspicuous that when it came time in 1984 to gather on the beaches of Normandy, the American president seemed as important a part of the 50th celebration as the combat veterans around him.

It should come as no surprise that many Americans, especially the same voters who liked Ike, JFK and Reagan, would now look with interest and favor toward John McCain.

What we are seeking, after all, is not generalship but audacity of purpose. More than political agreement, much of the electorate looks most of all for character.

After the indignity and self-indulgence of recent years, the best of us are seeking as our leader someone who can produce evidence that he has, perhaps only once, taken a risk or suffered hard injury for a cause greater than himself.

Whatever other tests lie ahead, McCain met this one as he lay 30 years ago atop his own blood and waste in that stinking, steaming Hanoi cell where, he once joked, they didn't leave mints on your pillow.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

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