When he ran for president eight years ago, John McCain was asked by an
interviewer what he thought of the Confederate flag a touchy topic in South
Carolina, where at the time a debate was raging over whether the banner
should continue to fly above the state capitol.
McCain answered from the heart: "As we all know, it's a symbol of racism and
slavery." But his reply infuriated many South Carolina voters, and after the
interview McCain's aides pushed him to undo the damage. So he let them draft a
statement "clarifying" his position, and when reporters asked him about the
flag in the days that followed, he made a show of pulling the paper from his
pocket and reading his revised remarks. "As to how I view the flag," it began,
"I understand both sides." It went on to acknowledge that some people may deem
the flag "a symbol of slavery" McCain's original, authentic opinion but
that "personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."
By the fourth or fifth time the question came up, McCain later wrote in his
2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For (coauthored with Mark Salter), he could
have delivered the new response from memory.
"But I persisted with the theatrics of unfolding the paper and reading it as if
I were making a hostage statement. I wanted to telegraph reporters that I
really didn't mean to suggest I supported flying the flag, but political
imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me
still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so
that I could go on to be an honest president. I think that made the offense
worse. Acknowledging my dishonesty with a wink didn't make it less a lie. It
compounded the offense by revealing how willful it had been. You either have
the guts to tell the truth or you don't. . . .
"I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own
interests from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable. All my
heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me."
Try, if you can, to imagine Hillary Clinton writing those words. Or Mitt
Romney. Or Mike Huckabee. Is it conceivable that John Edwards, who fiercely
indicts the moral shortcomings of others, would ever speak so bluntly and
harshly about his own? Would Ron Paul? Would Barack Obama? Among America's
leading politicians, I cannot think of any who is so forthright about his own
failings, or so willing to let the world see him struggle with his conscience.
I didn't vote for McCain in the 2000 primary. I didn't vote for George W. Bush
either. As I wrote at the time, I skipped the GOP primary altogether because I
was repelled by the candidates' cheap shots and mudslinging. (McCain would
later characterize it pretty much the same way. "George and I exchanged so many
insults and charges," he wrote in his memoir. "[T]he primary became a foul brew
of resentment, hatred, and sleaze.")
Today McCain's second presidential campaign is in the midst of a remarkable
revival. A few months ago, he was down and nearly out, his poll numbers
plummeting and his bank account depleted. Today he is closing in on the New
Hampshire lead, just 3 percentage points behind front-runner Mitt Romney,
according to the latest Boston Globe poll.
An impressive collection of odd journalistic bedfellows the liberal Globe
and the Des Moines Register, the conservative Boston Herald and the Manchester
Union-Leader, even the University of Iowa's Daily Iowan have all endorsed
the Arizona senator. So have four quite dissimilar former secretaries of state
Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Lawrence Eagleburger, and George Shultz.
McCain even has the blessing of Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Party's
vice presidential nominee in 2000. Highly opinionated and controversial
politicians do not normally win support from such disparate regions of the
philosophical map. If the slogan weren't so tarnished, McCain could rightly
claim to be running for the White House as a uniter, not a divider.
In the Globe's new poll, one finding caught my eye. When asked which candidate
they thought "most trustworthy," 30 percent of likely Republican voters chose
McCain the highest tally of any candidate, Republican or Democrat. Obama,
with 29 percent, is almost as highly trusted. Among Republicans, Romney's 23
percent puts him in second place, not too far behind McCain's rating on
trustworthiness. But the two men's numbers have been moving in opposite
directions. The more voters get to know the candidates, the less they trust
Romney and the more they trust McCain.
I'm not surprised. Not because I imagine that McCain walks on water. He is
plainly a flawed human being with a skeleton or two in his closet. But he
strives to heed the better angels of his nature and he lets us see the
striving. Ironically, a politician who can publicly berate himself for being
"dishonest" and "a coward" is a politician voters have more reason to trust. A
once and future presidential hopeful who can own up to his own moral lapses and
write, with sincerity, "All my heroes . . . would have been ashamed of me," is
no ordinary candidate.
And if there is one thing American politics badly needs these days, it is no