The Real McCain: Mark Salter/Andrew Sullivan edition

Andrew Sullivan takes (in my mind, justified) umbrage* at Mark Slater’s complaints about his coverage of Senator McCain.

But the more interesting passage in Salter’s ululation before Jeffrey Goldberg comes just before the offending (to Andrew) remarks.  Salter claims:

“I think the media is driven by a need to see this history happen. And I think they’ve rationalized it, they think they’re on the level with McCain, that he’s not the old McCain. But he is the old McCain. He just doesn’t know what happened to the old press corps… “

I actually think Salter has a point here, just not the one he thinks he has.

John McCain has long claimed a special list of attributes: he is experienced — which is to say knowledgeable in a particularly useful real-world way; he has the capacity to command; he gets things done; and above all, he is consistent, true to himself, moral.

The record, long before this campaign, shows otherwise.  He did not have a strong command resume as an officer; he was reckless at critical moments as a flier (multiple plane crashes and the rest).

His judgment on critical real world issues has often been demonstrably poor:  not just Iraq, but his recent performance in the financial crisis has revealed what appears to be a characteristic lurching from reaction to reaction, exactly the opposite of the reasoned analysis experience is supposed to inform. He has an incredibly thin record of legislative accomplishment for a three decade-member of congress and so on.

And above all, his claim of righteousness, of a quality of purity of thought and deed and heart that exceeds that of mortal congressfolk is a self-deluding fantasy.  You don’t have to look to the current campaign to see this.   You don’t have to look back to the Keating Five.

No, the most devastating single news report of this campaign cycle is to me the one the New York Times released documenting McCain’s routine corruption over many years as the lead Senator regulating — and picking winners and losers — at the very funky intersection between Washington politics and Indian gaming.  Go back and read it, and you will see a perfect illustration of an ordinarily unprincipled man, bowing to personal connections and enriching his friends through the arbitrary exercise of an essentially unchecked little trove of power.

All this is to say that McCain now is the same as he has ever been — just as Salter says; the only problem is the man he was is the man he is — an entitled, ambitious guy who thinks it his due to be President.  The only question from the beginning of this campaign was whether or not the press would notice that this emperor has no clothes.

And here again, Salter’s right.  The press has changed, even though McCain has not. The old press corps were willing enablers of the McCain fantasy.  Two things then happened:  Obama’s formidably disciplined campaign worked hard to put before the press their alternate view of McCain’s “reality,” and McCain himself — not a seraph, not an angel of Lord of Sedona — chose to run a campaign that would pit his virtue against the anti-American moral squalor of the elite press.

Marc Ambinder wondered at the time if calling out the press with 60 days to go to the election was a good idea.  It was not; it finally liberated an increasingly large number of observers from their fixation on the shadows on the wall of the cave.

So here’s to Mark Salter.  Articulating the problem is the first step to recovery, my man.

*what a glorious word, derived from the Latin umbra, meaning shade or shadow, working its way through medieval French to a first usage in English in 1426, as a more or less direct translation of the Latin.  250 years later, its journey through the minds of native speakers has transformed it to the point where it takes on its modern meaning, referring to the suspicion or feeling of having been slighted — first documented in 1680.  Having just spent the last two years writing about the late seventeeth century, I do understand just how useful such a meaning would have been in a society blessed with polemicists like Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.

Image:  Men inspecting the first air crash near Toronto, 1911.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

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One Comment on “The Real McCain: Mark Salter/Andrew Sullivan edition”

  1. Spiv Says:

    “It was not; it finally liberated an increasingly large number of observers from their fixation on the shadows on the wall of the cave.”

    And special recognition for invoking Plato’s Republic. There is an implication in the allegory that the shadows are the imperfect, and that the “real” or “ideas” are the pure/perfect. I cringe at the though that there’s anything particularly pure about Sen. McCain, but still, I like the analogy, for the following reasons:

    It seems that as we are all set free, indeed we do have many who are blinded by the light of the fire and refuse to believe the objects are the real, instead turning their head back to the familiar shadows that they have been conditioned to believe they are real. So forcably that we have some serious anger coming from the right for having shown such a light in their eyes.

    “Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and they, pitiable? And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? “Wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

    I would certainly suggest that we are all quite bad at the games of the far right, unable to comprehend what passes as “wisdom” within their cave.

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