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Jewish World Review April 26, 1999 /10 Iyar 5759

Ben and Dailel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Ben Wattenberg


John McCain: born leader

( IS JOHN MCCAIN the anti-matter Bill Clinton?

You may not like Bill Clinton the man, but you gotta love Clinton's economy.

And McCain? If you're a conservative Republican, you probably don't like McCain's stance on campaign finance reform or his cigarette taxes. And you may have doubts about his proposed escalation in Kosovo. But you gotta love John McCain.

With McCain, the man is the message -- he has charisma in its older, truer sense, before it came to mean grinning, blow-dried good looks.

Since the beginning of the bombing in Yugoslavia, McCain has made Clinton look like Garth Brooks at the Padres training camp -- a deluded fan playing commander-in-chief at Fantasy President Camp.

President Clinton has a war, but no contingency plan for victory should the bombing fail (other than Sandy Berger's Strangelovian "We keep bombing") and no convincing strategic rationale. At a heavily covered speech last week at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, McCain offered both. Too bad it isn't McCain's war.

Accusing the administration of "avoiding war while waging one," he said that Clinton may be cutting his war aims to the scale of the limited, risk-avoidant means he is prepared to use. McCain called for upping the ante -- mobilizing for possible ground war and maybe toughening our peace terms: independence, not just autonomy, for Kosovo. Returning the Kosovars to "communities policed by the very people who so savagely depopulated them," would be one tough sell, he said.

The Vietnam vet couldn't resist an indirect gibe at the Rhodes Scholar who learned how to salute from Tony Lake -- after becoming commander-in-chief. "As almost anyone with any war experience knows, you're never supposed to show the enemy what you won't do to win," McCain said.

McCain's principled and decisive stance on Kosovo has also made some in the GOP look vacillating and calculating. If McCain is supporting a war of questionable strategic necessity for the right reasons, too many in his party seem to oppose it for the wrong reasons. If some conservative doves are positioning themselves in the expectation of a military stalemate or a collapse of public support, they are making a big mistake: The odds still heavily favor NATO military victory, and the staying power of the public is greater than they think.

McCain is driven by principle on Kosovo -- but can he help it if it's also great politics? In less than a month, he has gone from asterisk to bottom of the first tier of GOP presidential hopefuls. His support among Republicans both nationally and in New Hampshire has roughly tripled, according to a just-released Reuters/Zogby poll. And he has raised $3.8 million, for second place behind George W. Bush. Who knew?

For McCain, as for no other candidate, visibility is a compounding asset. In his case, familiarity breeds respect. As told in author Robert Timberg's masterful "The Nightingale's Song," McCain's story -- the disappointing son of a storied Navy family who as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton redeemed his wayward youth -- has the ingredients of a myth as old as Prince Hal and as fresh as Michael Corleone.

The young McCain had an instinctive resistance to arbitrary authority. At the Naval Academy he was sloppy in appearance (at least by Academy standards) and selective in his academic efforts. Dragged down by bad conduct demerits, he finished 894 in his class of 899 cadets.

But that same subversive individualism that was little more than a pose in his youth helped him -- and his fellow POWs -- make it through many a night in his long years in captivity in Hanoi after being shot down over the city in 1967.

The son of the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam, McCain represented a priceless propaganda opportunity for the enemy, who urged him to accept an early release from prison. But rather than hand his captors a PR victory or break ranks with his fellow prisoners, he steadfastly refused, despite permanent injuries that would have allowed him to do so with a clear conscience. For his refusal to cooperate, the "air pirate McCain" was tortured.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the Vietnamese had assembled 50 American POWs for a "Christmas service" (replete with floral settings and a small choir) for the benefit of the photographers lining the walls of the room. But despite repeated orders to stop talking, McCain just couldn't keep quiet in church.

"This isn't Christmas," he yelled. "This is a propaganda show." And later, to another prisoner, "I refused to go home. I was tortured for it. They broke my rib and rebroke my arm..." They had not broken his middle finger, however, as he demonstrated each time a camera swiveled on him. John McCain is a born leader.

And that's important, because you can teach a commander-in-chief how to salute -- but can you teach him how to lead?

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.


04/19/99: Gore in the balance
04/13/99: Hollywood is sharing the spotlight
04/05/99: Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia
03/26/99: Politics as dog food
03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
03/08/99: Axioms for good politicians
02/26/99: L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past
02/23/99: The sprawl brawl
02/11/99: Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99: Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99: The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
01/14/99: Sum of scandal? It's OK
12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
12/11/98: Better dead than read?
11/25/98: Polling the Pilgrims
11/13/98: The icon and the iconoclast
11/06/98: What happened? Nothing!
10/28/98: Two billion never-borns!
10/22/98: Election pundits know nothing
10/15/98: The too-big-to-fail doctrine
9/29/98: The Jerk Factor at work
9/24/98: American civic engagement thriving
9/16/98: Anatomy of a cover-up
9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

©1999, Creators Syndicate