Ever since John McCain started running for president, well over twelve years ago (and to be up-front, I voted for McCain in the 2000 primary; I resented Geo. W. Bush’s coronation by party insiders as The Nominee), the knock on him has been that he is at bottom part of the systemic problem and not part of the solution. By that I mean that he’s seen as someone who’s willing to abandon a position in order to be seen as Doing Something, even when that Something will foreseeably have catastrophic consequences over the long term. He’s someone for whom the expression “gridlock” is the most damning accusation that can hurled within the universe of Congress. He’s someone for whom “moving forward” is a cardinal virtue, even when “moving forward” turns out to be, and can be seen to be, “moving forward downstream towards the cataract.” He’s seen as someone who craves praise as being “bi-partisan” in spirit, praise doled out by an information industry that is more or less openly a cheerleading section for the left wing of the opposite party.
Many years ago, my mother, a good Midwestern German girl, observed to me that after a point you have the reputation you earn. Just as stereotypes do not arise in a vacuum, unless a person is a recluse or pathologically withdrawn, there is going to be a core of truth at the center of his reputation. For a public person, particularly a person who’s been public at high levels and for decades, the assumption of underlying reality not being all that far away from reputation is about as ironclad reliable as anything is likely to be.
That McCain has managed to earn the reputation he has for that sort of behavior at the same time that he has also earned a reputation as one of the more cantankerous senators around strikes one at first blush as incongruous. At least it does until one remembers his background. He’s the first eldest son for three generations in his family not to have risen to fleet-level command. His grandfather, John S. “Slew” McCain, was one of our more renowned carrier admirals, so highly regarded that, having died almost exactly at the moment of victory in 1945, he was promoted to a full, four-star admiral posthumously. His father wore four stars as commander of the Pacific Fleet while John III languished in a Hanoi prison for years on end, enduring tortures which leave his body shattered to this day. [Aside: I still feel like puking when I contemplate that America chose, over McCain, a fellow whose political mentor was and remains an unrepentant domestic terrorist, one who met with the people who were smashing McCain’s teeth out, wrenching his shoulders out of the sockets, and beating him senseless. This mentor is, by the way, one of the very few associates from his past whom Dear Leader has pointedly never disavowed. And we elected that piece of dripping scum, twice now.] But you see the navy cultivates bad tempers like certain other sub-cultures do fashion statements such as zoot suits, bling, or the emaciated Kate Moss look. A daughter of Fleet Admiral King once allowed that her father, a man whom FDR described as “shaving with a blow torch,” was the most even-tempered man in the navy, “always in a rage.”
Over the years I’ve come to understand that the most critical attribute in a leader, public or private, is character. It trumps all. It’s more indispensable than intelligence, than “experience,” than competence, than connections. With a fundamentally sound character all other deficiencies can be supplied; with a fundamentally corrupt nature — such as enjoyed by Dear Leader and his cronies — no other attributes will serve any purpose other than furthering that essential corruption. It is the same thought which Churchill alluded to in his peroration to his speech upon the French defeat in 1940. “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” What makes the doings of Dear Leader and his cronies so utterly repulsive is that in their relentless efforts to destroy the position and power of the United States, in their tender solicitude for every group of bloodthirsty tyrants bent on imposing the brutality of the Religion of Peace across the face of the globe, they are perverting the natural gifts which a generous God gave them to use for man’s betterment. Undoubted abilities which might with great, astounding, even, success be harnessed to the cause of human liberty are instead made the servants of corruption, oppression, tyranny, violence, and the negation of the moral agency which alone separates man from the beasts of the forest.
I have the highest respect for John McCain’s fundamental character. He endured, without flinching, without selling out, a degree of physical and mental suffering that must — blessedly, by the way — remain incomprehensible to those of us who never experienced it. To read Adm. Stockdale’s book or Alexander Dolgun’s is to see that there will forever remain a gulf between the survivors of such horrors — such as McCain — and the rest of us. What must we look like to him? What shadows in our moral make-up are immediately apparent to someone who looks across that gulf at us, yet remain hidden from those of us across whom those shadows fall? What beams in our eyes does he see as we carp and bitch about the mote in his?
On “Meet the Press,” reported here, we see both sides of McCain. On the one hand, he calls Benghazi as it is: a “massive cover-up.” When his host attempts to pooh-pooh McCain’s characterization, McCain offers to send him a detailed list of the material questions which, over five months later, still have not been answered by the administration which looked on — in real-time video feed — as an American ambassador and three others were slaughtered. This is the McCain we like to see, the guy who won’t toe the line, the guy who was forever getting the snot beat out of him by his captors for exactly such behavior. It’s why I voted for him.
And then McCain offers up that, while he thinks Chuck Hagel is “qualified” to be Secretary of Defense, and he doesn’t intend to vote for him, “But I don’t believe that we should hold up his nomination any further.” What??? This isn’t a question of whether Hagel is “qualified” or not. We’re not interviewing for some mid-level regional supervisor of making sure your local McDonald’s has sufficient hamburger buns on hand for the Memorial Day weekend. This is the Secretary of Defense, who will be in charge of superintending the military’s ability to project America’s remaining power abroad in support of its interests and those of its allies. And this particular nominee has a richly-documented history of antipathy towards the single United States ally in what is and will remain for the foreseeable future a highly critical area of the world . . . and a highly unstable and extremely violent one at that. He has a documented history of statements and political positions taken in support of regimes which are confessedly and actively opposed to the United States, and which themselves support those groups which have sought us out to attack us. Recall that as of September 11, 2001, we had invaded no country in the Middle East; we occupied no one’s territory; we had no presence there which was not by express invitation of the sovereign ruler of the soil on which our soldiers’ boots stood. And still they came for us. Chuck Hagel, for whatever reason, has taken sides with the regimes which support those folks.
So no, Sen. McCain, I’m not interested in whether Hagel is “not qualified” so much as I am in whether he is actively disqualified. And the two statements are not at all logical or moral equivalents of each other. The senate’s confirmation power does not exist for the purpose of imposing the senate’s own preferences upon a president. It exists for precisely such situations as Chuck Hagel’s nomination. Confirming this man to one of the key posts in the administration will send an unambiguous signal to those who hate us, to those who are pouring out vast amounts of wealth and blood to destroy us and our allies. It will tell them not to lose hope, not to compromise, not to reconsider their positions. Because with Chuck Hagel they’ve got another friend on the inside. They’ve got someone to run interference for their biggest friend, the president himself. It will also send an equally unambiguous signal to our few friends in that part of the world. It will tell those within the Irans, the Afghanistans, the Saudi Arabias, the Lebanons, the North Koreas, that they are alone in their struggle to be something other than what their countries presently are. They need expect no assistance, overt or otherwise, from the one country which might lend them a hand, even indirectly. They may as well make their arrangements.
Recall what happened when in summer, 1939 the British dispatched — by ship, no less — Adm. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax to Moscow. He was sent by sea, taking days to arrive, and when he did he had no authority to enter into any sort of agreement. This was a time at which events were developing by the day, and the set of tide was unmistakably towards a general war on the European continent within a matter of weeks or less. The Poles, to whom Britain and France had unilaterally extended a guaranty against Germany, were adamant in their refusal to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory in the direction of Germany. Britain and France refused to make their guaranty conditional on Polish cooperation with the Soviet Union. Stalin, no fool, could see that the Western allies were broken reeds, fundamentally unserious about holding Hitler in check. So he made his arrangements with Hitler, when Ribbentrop was sent with full plenipotentiary powers and by air. In what respects, pray tell, will the calculus of our few potential friends in the Middle East differ from those of Stalin, with a Secretary of Defense Hagel installed in Washington?
But John McCain doesn’t think we should further delay voting on this man, knowing that a vote will proceed on purely party lines. To prevent this man’s installation in power would require upsetting the comity of the Senate. It wouldn’t be good form. It would transgress upon the vaunted “civility” of that body. That it would also remove the last vestige of a consequence from Dear Leader’s suppression of the truth of Benghazi, that it would prove once and for all that there is no dereliction of duty, no subverting of America, that the press and the administration cannot jointly paper over with a pall of silence, obfuscation, and outright lies — this does not matter to John McCain. Or at least it does not matter enough to him that he is willing to act. To speak? Of course, his words are courage itself, and from a man who understands from the scars on his body the essence of courage.
Sharp words are not enough, not any more, not in the struggle against someone who crows about doing things “the Chicago way.” Once upon a time, when an ambassador handed a note to the foreign ministry to which accredited, that the consequences of this-that-or-the-other course of action being pursued by the minister’s government “could not be foretold,” that was taken as an explicit threat of war. No more. Saying that Chuck Hagel is “not qualified,” when in fact his appointment would be a spit in the face of every friend and ally we have, to say nothing of all the grieving widows and children of those who have died, or the faces of the maimed in mind or body, is monstrously insufficient. Meekly to acquiesce in his appointment is an abdication of the power vested by the Constitution in the Senate precisely for the purpose of thwarting such abominations.
And there you have the knock on McCain, encapsulated and justified in one line.