Monday, October 20, 2008

McCain's John Lewis Problem

When someone you admire, a civil rights leader whom you yourself call "an American hero," compares you to George Wallace and calls on you to change your campaign tactics in the name of public safety:

1) You can take umbrage, and try to make an issue of how terribly unfair it is to compare you to a vicious segregationist like George Wallace, and while you're on the topic try to make your political opponent into the villain for not "repudiating" the Wallace comparison.


2) You can stop acting like George Wallace.

McCain's response to Lewis is revealing, not simply for the dishonesty and political opportunism that McCain now reveals on a daily basis, but for what it reveals about McCain's value system. He takes offense, or purports to, at being compared to a racist. He utterly ignores the point of Lewis's comparison, which is that his rhetoric, like Wallace's, is stirring up passions that may end in civil violence or even bloodshed. The slur against his character stings McCain. The call to civic duty, and the warning of public danger, does not even register. McCain is deaf to it.

This is the essence of John McCain: a confusion of private virtue, or "character," with public virtue. It is more important to him to establish that he is not, personally, a racist, than it is to protect the common good. McCain's candidacy, and his political career, is premised on the idea that a politician's sense of individual honor will benefit the nation at large. The conduct of his campaign puts the lie to that idea.

McCain's campaign tactics haven't been terribly consonant with personal honor, either, but personal failings can always be rationalized or repented. Once a politician does public harm, the consequences are out of his control. No repentance will help the victims if McCain's reckless and inflammatory tactics bring his fellow Americans to harm. John McCain will have to look at himself in the mirror after this campaign, but I couldn't care less what he finds there. He will only have to live with himself; the rest of us will have to live with what he's wrought.

No comments: