I’m reading John McCain’s Worth the Fighting For in preparation for a freshman discussion group I’ll be running next week. The book is ghost written, but still very revealing. It’s not just that McCain details his indiscretions in order to pre-empt criticism; this I would expect from any politician. It’s that he is entirely open about all sorts of things that could easily be downplayed, and prudentially would be downplayed: his temper, his stubbornness, his rudeness, his occasional crudeness, and his appalling ambition. This lack of expediency becomes, in turn, his main character trait, and I would call it his main fault. In other words, his main fault is that, instead of concealing his faults under a veneer of statesmanship, he stresses and caresses them. Lip service is paid to the notion that they are faults, that he does not excuse them, and that he is learning to control them. But insofar as the book has a single consistent thrust in its presentation of character, the idea is to make a virtue of his failings. Because he is enormously proud of them, and his delight in them comes through on almost every page.
A typical line, describing a debate with a rival from early in his career, runs as follows. “He never really drew blood, so when he used his closing statement to continue his attacks, I was able to ignore them, adopting a conventionally senatorial tone wax on about the privilege of service” (115). To wax on about the privilege of service? What does McCain think he’s up to? The answer is that he has confused a lack of prudence with integrity. He thinks that this sort of in-your-face cynicism is a mark of his honour, his uprightness, and his reliability. I have always disliked it when people treat sincerity as a virtue in itself. McCain takes this position to an extreme; it is the backbone of his character.
His second main character trait is an unconquered romanticism. This, certainly, he recognizes as a problem, but it is so deeply a part of him that he clearly couldn’t have written (or dictated, or sketched) a book that left it out. Since the age of 12 he has been longing to be the undaunted underdog fighting for justice in a lost cause, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Brando’s version of Emiliano Zapata. He claims he has learned to temper this longing with an understanding of the necessity of small changes made by groups working together, but the claim rings hollow. In this sense, it seems to me, he did not grow up.