After his meeting yesterday with the Republican nominee, President Bush told the press that John McCain would be a “President who will bring determination to defeat an enemy, and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” That sounds just swell, if your model for the president is Aslan, the mighty and compassionate lion king from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But perhaps a more grown-up approach to presidential character assessment is needed. If so, you could hardly do better than Matt Welch’s new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.
Welch’s book provides plenty of reasons to worry about a McCain presidency, often using McCain’s own words to raise questions about the Arizona senator’s ideology and temperament. On the latter, Welch devotes a whole chapter to the issue of the McCain temper, beginning the chapter with a quote from McCain’s 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: “During an otherwise tranquil early childhood, I had quite unexpectedly developed an outsized temper that I expressed in an unusual way. At the smallest provocation, I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” In 1999 McCain told the LA Times: “I do everything I can to keep my anger under control. I wake up daily and tell myself, ‘You must do everything possible to stay cool, calm, and collected today.’” Arguably, a little temper is a good thing in a chief executive, but before handing over the keys to the world’s most powerful military, one would like to be sure that the CINC has his anger well in hand.
As for the ideology that motivates McCain, in Welch’s telling, it’s 180-proof National Greatness Conservatism. After a McCain adviser handed the senator a stack of David Brooks essays in the late ’90s, Welch writes that “it became difficult to determine where the Weekly Standard’s imagination ended and McCain’s stump speech began.” Welch quotes a May 27, 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech he mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” No, God forbid.
In the late 1990s, McCain looked out upon peace, prosperity, and American irreverence towards government, and he saw a country in crisis. We could only be saved with government activism — whether that took the form of speech-restricting campaign finance laws or “rogue state rollback.” After all, as Brooks put it in his 1997 “Manifesto” on National Greatness Conservatism: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” If you think the country needs more of that approach, then McCain may be the man for you.