In one of our many conversations as we crisscrossed the country during his campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, John McCain said to me, "I've always tried to act on what I thought was the best for the country. And that has guided me.... The only thing I can do is assure people that I would act on principle."
I traveled with McCain for weeks that political season, stayed in Arkansas with him, Cindy, and their children, and - for a Vanity Fair cover profile -- filled dozens of notebooks and tapes with observations from and about a potentially heroic politician who seems far removed from the man running for president today.
Three weeks after the 2008 Republican convention, on the cusp (maybe) of the first presidential debate, it is time to confront an awkward but profound question: whether in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain has committed -- by his own professed standards of duty and honor -- a singularly unpatriotic act.
"I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," he has said throughout this campaign. Yet, in choosing Palin, he has demonstrated -- whatever his words -- it may be permissible to imperil the country, conceivably even to "lose" it, in order to win the presidency. That would seem the deeper meaning of his choice of Palin.
Indeed, no presidential nominee of either party in the last century has seemed so willing to endanger the country's security as McCain in his reckless choice of a running mate. He is 72 years old; has had four melanomas, a particularly voracious form of cancer; refuses to release his complete medical records. Three of our last eleven presidents (and nine of all 43) have come to office unexpectedly in mid-term from the vice presidency: Truman, who within days of FDR's death was confronted with the decision of whether to drop the atom bomb on Japan; Lyndon Johnson, who took the oath in Dallas after JFK's assassination; Gerald Ford, sworn in following the resignation of Richard Nixon. A fourth vice president, George H.W. Bush, briefly exercised the powers of the presidency after the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Given that history, what does John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin -- the cavalier, last-minute process of her selection and careless vetting; and her over-briefed, fact-lite performance since -- reveal about this military man who has attested to us for years that he is guided by his personal code of honor? "Two things I will never do," McCain told me, "are [to] lie to the American people, or put my electoral interests before the national interest" -- an obvious precursor of "I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war."
McCain, I wrote for Vanity Fair, "often speaks of the duty to follow his conscience in politics, rather than polls or party discipline. This, he says, comes from having escaped death and becoming 'more aware of the transience of everything we do.'"
"I've always had a pretty good idea about how to define something as to whether it's right or wrong," he told me. "I don't mean that I'm better or worse than anybody else. I just mean that when I see an issue and think about it and talk to people, I do generally have the ability to know what's the right course of action, even if it may not be what the majority wants. So I have a certain amount of confidence that I don't have to have a majority opinion on my side."
It does not take a near-death experience to know that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be commander in chief, or that -- in choosing her -- McCain has ignored his own oft-avowed code of conduct. "McCain made the most important command decision of his life when he chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee," noted David Ignatius in the Washington Post. "....No promotion board in history would have made such a decision."
Above all, the John McCain I covered in 1999-2000 was -- he said -- convinced that two factors were undermining the interests of the United States: its cultural wars, causing political gridlock in Washington and civic discontent across the land; and the unbending agenda of the right-wing of the Republican party that, in his view, had been captured by the Christian conservative movement and bore disproportionate responsibility for the poisonous state of American politics. Exhibit One: the scorched-earth campaign that George W. Bush was then waging against McCain's insurgent run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yet, McCain, is, in fact, running the kind of campaign against Barack Obama that George Bush ran against him in 2000, which he regarded rightly as dishonest, dishonorable and diversionary in terms of the truth about him and about the nation's problems.
The conservative commentator George Will has been especially incisive of late about the "dismaying," "un-presidential temperament" of McCain and the sleazy tenor of his campaign. Karl Rove (!) has responded to the incessant lying of McCain's ads (one claims falsely that Obama has promoted "comprehensive" sex education for five-year-olds -- he had, in fact, endorsed legislation to insure that kindergartners were warned about sexual predators), by saying, yes, the McCain camp's mendacity has "gone one step too far."
Meanwhile, McCain's frequent invocations of the need for bi-partisan statesmanship are interspersed with the angry themes of cultural warfare and of the Republican convention orchestrated by his handlers, the most dominant of them practitioners from the campaigns of George W. Bush: attacks on "tax-and-spend Democrats," on the dependable liberal bogeyman, on "the angry Left," on Constitution-rewriting federal judges (including, incongruously, three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to uphold McCain's singular legislative achievement: the campaign-finance act he authored with Democrat Russ Feingold).
"If hypocrisy were gold, the Capitol would be Fort Knox," McCain once famously said. "Some of those guys," he said, referring to his fellow senators, "have they even had lives? What have they done?" He added, "Aw, jeez, this is exactly the kind of thing that gets me into trouble." Indeed.
McCain's first choices to be his running mate were former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut, and former vice presidential nominee of his former party. Neither passed the ideological litmus test of the Republican-Right -- "The Base" -- because each holds pro-choice views. Certainly both are qualified to step into the presidency in terms of national security credentials -- regardless of whether one agrees with their particular politics -- in the event of the death of the president. McCain's "Hail Mary" pick -- Palin -- was hastily decided on the next-to-last day of the Democratic convention, by which time it was evident that Obama's convention was winning over independent voters; all that remained was the final night and the opportunity for Obama to deliver a speech that would further work to his advantage, and debilitate the McCain campaign. Only by exciting "The Base" could McCain remain competitive and win, it was calculated.
The distance from McCain's ads and assertions about his presidential opponent and Democrats generally, and his decision to run a "persona-based" campaign, as opposed to being specific on the issues, is of a piece with his choice of Palin to be his running mate. As another conservative commentator sometimes critical of McCain -- Peggy Noonan -- has noted, the "narrative" of a life [McCain's, Palin's], takes over from existential political fact in the type of campaign run by McCain and his handlers. We have heard an awful lot in the past few weeks, especially from Sarah Palin, about John McCain "The Maverick," just as we did in the convention narrative. But what McCain has actually been doing in this campaign, rather than actually being The Maverick, is conveying the appearance of iconoclasm, and playing to the crowd. (Hence, perhaps, "suspending" his campaign -- and trying to postpone the first presidential debate while his poll numbers are sinking -- to deal with the financial crisis?) At this point, the maverick claim seems no more genuine than Sarah Palin's charade foreign-policy tour of Manhattan with no witnesses -- reporters -- permitted to observe the proceedings.
The issue of Palin's relative ignorance about international affairs and the larger world beyond America's shores (compared to previous vice presidential nominees), her attendant arrogance in seeming to revel in it, and McCain's decision to subject the country to it in choosing a possible president -- is the biggest question in this election, or perhaps ought to be. It goes to the core of who the John McCain of this campaign is.
Another conservative commentator, David Brooks, wrote last week: "Sarah Palin has many virtues. If you wanted someone to destroy a corrupt establishment, she'd be your woman. But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness."
The more we learn, the more we realize the vetting process was -- given the rush of the circumstances -- hopelessly inadequate: McCain didn't know many aspects of Palin's record or her reputation (none of which is to say she wouldn't be a congenial fit as, say, Secretary of Interior in a McCain administration). McCain's first choices for a running mate -- Ridge and Lieberman -- were light years ahead of Palin in the vice presidential-qualification department. But they didn't meet the ideological test, exactly the ideological litmus test that McCain has attacked his whole political career and told us he would never succumb to.
John McCain is a serious man, as anyone who has spent time with him knows. But he has not run the kind of serious campaign he once promised.
Not for the first time, as many of his fellow Republicans (as opposed to friendly reporters and sympathetic Democrats) had long maintained, McCain's more reckless inclinations and lesser impulses prevailed. A great political movement that would transcend rabid partisanship and hard ideology does not seem in the cards.
And if he wins the election, Sarah Palin -- who in her first post-convention discussion of foreign policy indicated a willingness to go to war with Russia over Georgia -- stands a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Ultimately it is the choice of Palin, made in the moment when action speaks loudest, that may undermine a quarter-century of assertions by John McCain about the preeminence of duty, honor and country in his political schema.