Senator John McCain of Arizona asks a question of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, center, President Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill yesterday. Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, listens at left.
That one,” John McCain famously snarled in a presidential debate four years ago, referring to his opponent who was a quarter of a century younger and who had been in the Senate 3 years to McCain’s 20. It’s difficult to imagine a better revelation of the McCain psyche than that moment, but if there is one, then it came yesterday at the meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, convened to consider the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. The McCain fury is something to behold, almost irresistible for how unvarnished it is in all its forms. In the instance of the 2008 debate, McCain’s dumbfounded antipathy had to do with facing an opponent he so clearly considered unworthy. In the instance of the hearing yesterday, McCain’s bitter blast was at somebody who once was among his closest friends, a former Vietnam warrior and fellow Republican of a similarly independent ilk, who supported McCain’s first run for the presidency in 2000 against George W. Bush but then appeared to abandon the Arizona senator eight years later.
If all this suggests political differences born largely of personal dynamics and their breach, it’s because for McCain the two are interchangeable. At this moment we should make the effort to remind ourselves of what’s commendable about McCain, an admiral’s son who could only live up to his father’s reputation by way of five years in a Hanoi jail, where he walked—or hobbled, given the crippling abuse he suffered at the hands of his captors—the walk of loyalty and didn’t just talk it. When offered freedom halfway through those five years, he refused to leave behind his fellow prisoners of war who had been there longer and were due their freedom first. It’s a story so formidable that 12 years ago Bush supporters resorted to suggesting McCain was a “Hanoi Candidate,” brainwashed in the manner of cinematic Manchurians. So let’s not question McCain’s courage, or a code that means as much to him as patriotism. In that initial presidential run, admiration for the man trumped what disagreements overly romantic voters like myself had when it came time to mark his name on our ballots (as I did in that year’s California primary).
In the time since, two things have happened to McCain. One was the Iraq War, the worst American foreign policy blunder of the post-World War II era, which McCain wholeheartedly supported from the beginning and about which he’s never intimated a second thought. The other was Barack Obama, electoral politics’ upstart lieutenant whose bid to become five-star general, bypassing stops along the way at captain, major and colonel, wasn’t just temerity to a man who waited his turn to be released from prison, but insubordination. Those two things converged yesterday in McCain’s prosecution of Hagel, no less sorry a spectacle on McCain’s part for the fact that Hagel handled it so unimpressively. Perhaps Hagel was startled, figuring his one-time compatriot would be tough but not vicious. If that’s the case, then he never knew McCain as well as he thought or hoped, because if he did then he would know that McCain is a man of grudges. In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, in which words like “gallantry” appear without embarrassment (and which no one has more earned the right to use), McCain himself acknowledges being the congenital hothead of legend who’s nearly come to blows with colleagues. Half a century later, he recalls every altercation with every Naval Academy classmate; as a child, rage sometimes drove him to hold his breath until he blacked out. No need to indulge in untrained psychotherapy from afar to surmise that the ability to nurse such a grudge may be what gets you through half a decade of cruel incarceration.
At any rate, what happened yesterday wasn’t about Hagel at all. It wasn’t even about the Iraq War’s 2007 “surge,” which McCain is desperate to justify because he can never justify the war itself that finds Hagel moved to the right side of history while McCain remains stubbornly on the wrong. It’s about that junior senator from Illinois who crossed McCain early in some obscure backroom Senate deal no one can remember anymore, then denied McCain the presidency in no small part because Obama understood the folly of Iraq better than McCain can allow himself to. McCain’s personal honor in Hanoi was too hard won to be stained now by almost anything he does, including how he’s allowed temperament, pique and ego to steamroll the judgment and perspective that we hope all of our elected officers have, let alone presidents. But his political honor, not to mention whatever might once have recommended him to the presidency, has fallen victim to the way that Obama has gotten fatally under his skin. Even if this once-noble statesman should succeed in denying Hagel’s nomination as he denied Susan Rice’s prospects for Secretary of State (and even the most devout Hagel supporter would have to acknowledge that the Defense nominee’s performance before the Committee was often a shambles), McCain’s unrelenting obsession with the grievance that Obama has come to represent to him is the saddest legacy in memory. The very fact of Obama and all things Obamic has turned McCain into something toxic, maybe even to himself.