10/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain, a Fish Story, and Iraq

Simple dishonesty doesn't explain the fancy filter in Senator McCain's brain -- the filter that strains all the nuance and prudence from the words of Gen. David Petraeus, the filter that allowed McCain to claim at Friday's debate that Petraeus thinks Senator Obama's Iraq-withdrawal plan is "dangerous for America."

I can't do justice to the subtlety of Petraeus here. Please take the time to read the recent New Yorker piece about the general. Here's a quote from the piece that shows Petraeus does not want to be used the way McCain used him at the debate: "You have to be so precise, so that neither side can use it against you. Either side is trying to use what you say. The idea is to stay away from this whole optimism-pessimism thing."

But maybe McCain can't help it. It's that fancy filter of his. To understand McCain's brain filter, let's talk about fish. Let's talk about fish and how much they love oil rigs. Sound strange? Sound too good to be true? Sound like the sort of thing you'd want to investigate a little before casting your fishing line into the waters below a drilling platform?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Wrong because Senator McCain visited an oil platform and saw fish with his own eyes. Lots of fish. After that, what more could there be to know? Well, you could pull some wussy move and read up on the subject. Or you could have your senatorial staff consult oceanographers or biologists or fishermen. Or, instead, you could just do what McCain did: trust your own eyes and spread the word.

(Note: If you have trouble playing the video above, here's what McCain told a crowd in Michigan earlier this month: "But I want to tell you, I visited an oil rig off the Louisiana coast. It survived hurricanes, it is safe, it is sound...and you look down, there's fish everywhere. Fish love to be around those rigs. So not only can it be helpful for energy, it can be some pretty good meals, as well.")

Now, don't get me wrong. Maybe oil rigs are just splendid for fish. Maybe fish who spend their whole lives in the shadow of rigs are tasty and healthy. Maybe we're making a huge mistake by not building seafood restaurants on rigs and booking reservations for hungry tourists.

The point is: I don't know. And neither does Senator McCain. His brain just filters out every detail that might make him question what his eyes are seeing.

What McCain's filter did looking down at those fish from the oil rig is the same thing his filter did when he visited an outdoor market in Iraq in the spring of 2007. Writing about a press conference after McCain's market visit, the New York Times published this:

"Mr. McCain was asked about a comment he made on a radio program in which he said that he could walk freely through certain areas of Baghdad.

"'I just came from one,' he replied sharply. 'Things are better and there are encouraging signs.'

"He added, 'Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.'"

But the rest of the Times story details what McCain's filter was able to help him ignore:

"The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday with more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees -- the equivalent of an entire company -- and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses said, and sharpshooters were posted on the roofs. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit."

This is one of those weird situations where I'd feel better about a McCain presidency if I believed the senator was simply lying, that he was misleading Americans by knowingly subtracting the 100 soldiers, the armored Humvees, the circling attack helicopters, the rooftop sharpshooters. But, as with the fish and the oil rig, I just don't think he is. I think his brain filter is just that good. Or, perhaps, just that bad. It seems to work without McCain even knowing it's working. The result is McCain's frequently adamant posture.

To McCain, the truth is what you see. What you see in one specific spot must be true in general. What you see today must be true on all other days. What you see with a massive military escort must be true for ordinary Iraqis trying to do their shopping without being killed by suicide bombers. What you see peering down from an oil rig tells you everything you need to know about the likes, dislikes, health, and toxicity of the fish congregating around an accidental manmade reef in a dying ocean. And what you learn in a single face-to-face meeting with Gov. Sarah Palin tells you everything you need to know about the person you'd place one heartbeat away from the presidency.

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