A man in full: The complexity of John McCain

by Beacon Staff • February 27, 2008

In his early days at the naval academy, it seems he happened to observe an upperclassman abusing a Filipino dining hall steward. In defiance of the strict hierarchy that's de rigeur in military institutions, young John loudly confronted the offender.,There's a "this-says-it-all" story bandied about by admirers of Sen. John McCain.

In his early days at the naval academy, it seems he happened to observe an upperclassman abusing a Filipino dining hall steward. In defiance of the strict hierarchy that's de rigeur in military institutions, young John loudly confronted the offender.

Incensed by his subordinate's forthrightness, the older boy demanded, "What's your name, mister?"

"My name's Midshipman John S. McCain III," responded the brazen future senator, "What's yours?"

A good amount of McCain's personality can be located within that exchange. The ordeal may seem petty to an outsider, but anyone familiar with military life understands the mettle required to take a stand like that. In a place where acting above one's rank is anathema, his gutsy display is remarkable.

Or, it would be remarkable in another man, but when it comes to John McCain, confrontation and daring are routine: he has built a reputation around his legendary brass balls.

Paradoxically, that bullish grit is at once his biggest plus and most significant minus. McCain consistently demonstrates a transfixing blend of courage and recklessness, honor and hubris, gentlemanly principle and cavalier bluster. As a candidate, this complex temperament deserves scrutiny. Parts of it thrill, parts of it frighten and other parts of it just mystify.

Difficult personalities lend themselves to caricaturization, so it's no shock to see McCain's image painted in wide brush strokes, using black and white hues alone.

To some, he's "John Wayne McCain," straight-shooting war hero and anti-establishment crusader. To others, he is a geriatric loudmouth, self-serving and slavishly committed to a confused ideology. Both conceptions contain grains of truth, but ultimately they lean too heavily upon fabrication.

What's crucial, really, is to discard such either/or thinking, to evenly parse his traits and tics with an eye towards a possible McCain administration.

For certain, the senator is an opinionated and self-righteous fellow. His willingness to break ranks with Republicans is proof positive of that much. Ditto his poorly hidden contempt for the "religious right," big business apologists and anti-immigrant zealots. In a party happy to accommodate all of the above, McCain stands out for his devotion to conviction at the price of party camaraderie.

Sometimes, his self-righteousness gets out of hand. When his ire is drawn, McCain can be absolutely uncivil. Frequently dogmatic, the senator has publicly belittled and cussed out adversaries. Even ordinary Americans who dare to question him on the campaign trail have received undisguised derision.

Such inflexibility, though, is understandable in a prisoner of war. During his half-decade stint in the "Hanoi Hilton," McCain was starved down to 110 pounds (from 160), made to wallow in his own waste and beaten on a regular basis until his limbs broke and his teeth shattered. Punishment like that will harden a man, and make severe his standards and judgments.

Yet the notion that McCain is totally unbendable, totally uncompromising is laughable. Underneath his veneer of pedestrian authenticity stirs a political animal. Nobody sticks around D.C. by being a purist. The guy might not relish establishment gimmicks, but he has apparently learned a few tricks.

On issues like taxes, immigration, the Bush presidency and torture, McCain has shifted his stances at least once, and skillfully. Exactly what stimulates the changes isn't clear. Necessity, expediency, opportunity, legitimate change of heart-they're all possibilities. Regardless of the motivation, it's clear that he isn't an unwavering idealist.

Also, despite abrasive tendencies, the senator is no badger. In youth he was considered a playboy, more sweet-talker than straight-talker. During his first race for Congress in 1982, he went from carpetbagger to native son in a matter of months, mainly by running a personable door-to-door campaign.

McCain is a complicated character with a grueling biography. Attempts to typecast him fall flat. The funny thing is that friends and enemies both cultivate a similar stock image of the senator, one wherein he's a brawler with unassailable principles.

That one dimensional stupidity, however, doesn't hold water. This much, at least, is real and true: the senator is fiery, maybe unnecessarily so, and over-defensive, self-important, chronically unable to leave well enough alone. He's a hardened veteran of life, tender in a paternal way, but heavy-handed; still punchdrunk from past battles; comfortable but not one hundred percent confident in his creed; smitten by America, and willing to work doggedly for its betterment.

Some voters will be turned off by that baggage, but others will see not baggage but instead marks of the crucible of experience, which forges competence and the spine needed to govern an expansive modern state.