McCain's Charming Gift Of Fear

05/25/2011 12:40 pm ET

In security expert Gavin de Becker's landmark book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, he uses several illustrations to demonstrate how our survival instincts often try to protect us even as we try to over-rule them with logic and reasoning, and how we should learn to trust our instincts over what even other people may be trying to tell us otherwise.

One example he uses is of a woman about to enter an elevator. There is one man on that elevator, who is clean-cut and nicely dressed in a suit and tie, but for some reason, a great unease sets in and she decides to wait for the next elevator. That elevator contains three youths dressed like goths who look at her with a surly expression, but she gets on that elevator anyway and the ride is uneventful.

Her eyes and her logic told her that the first elevator would have been the safest, but her instincts were warning her that the man was not what he appeared. Her instincts also perceived no threat from the rowdy teens on the second elevator. Her instincts were right both times.

What de Becker wants his readers to understand is that not everyone who is charming is really all that charming. Many of them are using charm as a manipulative tactic. Their ultimate goal is not to be liked by you so much as to be able to use you for their own purposes.

This has, ironically, been a complaint lodged by the media against Barack Obama. From what I can tell from my reading of the matter, they base this accusation on three things: (a) the size and enthusiasm of his crowds (b) the fact that his opponents have accused them of being caught up in his "spell" and not being objective and (c) the fact that, on the campaign plane, he does not very often hang out with them, joking and chatting. Rather, he tends to use that time to withdraw into a quiet space of his own making, shielding himself from interruptions with his ipod and reading through a formidable stack of memos, newspapers, and books.

Not at all like, say, John McCain, who is notorious for all the freewheeling access he has given the media through the years, not just on his so-called "Straight-Talk Express" campaign bus but also at just about any venue the reporters choose to question him about anything.

And oh, the funny stories he tells!

And oh, the long-winded answers he gives to all their questions!

And oh, what a GREAT GUY he is, this John McCain!

Why, he's just charming, really.

So charming, in fact, that at a press dinner introducing the two nominees earlier this year, McCain was given a gift of his favorite coffee--which of course, the reporters well remembered, what with all that coffee they drank with him themselves--but when they introduced Obama, they "accidentally" referred to him as "Osama."

So...let me see if we can analyze this a bit...Obama is to be under suspicion because he is so well-liked on the campaign trail by potential voters but does not joke around and drink coffee with reporters and tell funny stories and give them complete and unabridged access. So they don't trust him, somehow.

But McCain, on the other hand, who had "used charm" endlessly with his "base"--the press--that...let me see here...Oh! We can let that gaffe go. We know McCain didn't really mean it. Old guy gets cranky at the end of the day. And oh! Let's not worry too much about THAT gaffe because, hey, everybody makes mistakes sometimes. And UH-OH--looks like he made a real boner on CBS news...could even cost him the election, and is that really fair? No, no. What we'll do is, we'll splice together an EARLIER response from a different so...THERE. That's what he REALLY meant to say.

He's a charming guy! He goofs up sometimes but he's a good sport about it! Laughs about it with the press pool later! Not like that elite snob Obama who spends all his free time reading up on the latest economic and foreign crises to face this country.

Yeah...that guy's not really charming at all. We like the goof-off guy better!

Besides, he's a WAR HERO! And we all loooove John Wayne.

This is what I see happening...but all is not lost, dear Reader, because the truth is that, when someone USES charm as opposed to BEING CHARMING, then what happens is, over time...the mask slips.

Obama is pretty much Obama pretty much all the time. He gets irritable when he's tired, like the rest of us. But he doesn't "fly too high to the sun" on a good day and he doesn't despair on the bad days. This has been borne out now by many many people who have campaigned closely with him for months upon months now. Basically, his nature is calm and his temperament steady. He seldom even raises his voice.

Obama does all that reading on the plane because he has no other time to do it, and when he DOES take questions from reporters, he knows his information has to be accurate or they will pounce all over the slightest gaffe and pontificate on it endlessly for the next week or till the end of the campaign--whichever comes first.

But McCain is not charming all the time. McCain is only charming when it will get him something. He figured out long ago that if he used charm on reporters, he could fool them into letting him get away with the fact that he is pitifully uninformed on the most pressing events and issues of our day. He knew that by using charm on them, he could cast a spell of his own, that would give him tremendous leeway in a campaign.

People who have known and worked with him for years describe quite a different John McCain than the affable guy drinking coffee with the press pool.

Even in HIGH SCHOOL, they called him John "McNasty."

This is because, underneath all the flag-waving rhetoric, he is not a very nice person. He is, in fact, mean-spirited, vengeful, and has a titanic temper that has become legendary on the Senate floor. Go through recorded comments from fellow Republicans when he was running for the nomination in 2000, and you will see many who dreaded the thought of a McCain Oval Office. They worried about what a man with a hair-trigger temper would do when he had his finger on a real trigger.

This nastiness came in handy during his time as a prisoner of war. It made him resist and spit back in their faces whatever his captors gave to him. I take nothing away from that courage.

But I think his nastiness hides an underlying rage he's had in him all his life; resentment, maybe, from being expected to go to the Naval Academy and be an admiral just like dear old dad and granddad. He graduated 894th out of a class of 899, and says himself most all he did was raise hell. That's fine, we were all hell-raisers in college. But what I'm saying is that the image and the mythology that has been constructed around McCain from his earliest days in politics, and the idea he's given the press of his personality from his strenuous use of charm, does not in any way present the real man behind the mask.

Ask Nancy Reagan. She has scarcely spoken to him since he dumped his wife, (a good friend of the Reagans) who'd been disfigured in a car wreck during his incarceration, and three kids, to chase after and marry a beautiful millionaire heiress half his age less than a month after the divorce became final. Within a few months of that, he was running for congress as a charming war hero, bankrolled by his gorgeous young trophy wife.

His own party bemoans what a bad candidate he is, because, unlike another politician who knew very well how to use charm to hide an underlying nastiness--George W. Bush--McCain doesn't know how to stick to the party line. When they try to make him do it, his mask begins to crumble. He grimaces. His smiles are thin-lipped and mean. And when he's set loose, he says all the nasty things that, traditionally, surrogates like Karl Rove have done in his place so that the rest of the world can go on thinking he's such a nice, charming man.

And as the mask begins to slip, what I think is beginning to happen now and what I believe will happen increasingly, is that the instincts of the American voter are going to warn them that this is a man who is using charm in order to manipulate them into giving him what he--and the Bush administration wants--a third Bush term.

The press is going to persist in saying that it is OBAMA who is "using charm" on the American people and that they should be suspicious of that, but as the campaign drags on and they see more and more of the two men reacting to daily stresses and campaign strains, I think the truth will begin to show itself to those who have learned to trust their instincts.

Their logic and reasoning--and press reports--may tell them, hey, this guy's a war hero and we're at war; he's all experienced and everything; and gee, he's such a NICE GUY.

But as the mask slips and they realize that experience does not equal wisdom and that no matter how charming a man may seem, if he can't stop making gaffe after gaffe after gaffe then it must mean that, really, he does not know what he is talking about, and that,
furthermore, if he SAYS one thing but DOES trustworthy is that? I think their instincts will tell them that something does not add up.

It might take a debate or two to prove it. After all, Obama had to go up against the likes of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on 22 separate occasions. Who did McCain debate? Mitt Romney? Ron Paul?

As stated recently on Talking Points Memo, a politician who does not make gaffes is one who knows the issues well--this is why Hillary was so good on the trail and why Obama sailed through Europe and the Middle East without giving the press something to trumpet ad nauseum. The one who constantly makes word mistakes is one who, frankly, really does not know the issues that well.

We've had quite enough of that over the past eight years, thank you.

McCain has made so many mistakes on the trail that he is even corrected for them on-camera by those traveling with him. So far, he's gotten away with it because of his skillful use of charm with the media.

Bill Clinton used to always say that the American people had a great deal of common sense, which was the reason his popularity remained high no matter how much he was slimed by Republicans. The voters were CONSTANTLY told not to trust him, and yet they did.

And they were rewarded for that trust with a balanced budget, a surplus, the end to genocide in Bosnia without the loss of a single American life, gas at a buck and a half a gallon, and eight years of peace and prosperity. This was the Clinton legacy.

The Bush legacy? A ten-trillion dollar debt ceiling, a half-trillion dollar national debt, four-dollar gasoline, two wars and thousands of Americans and innocents dead, a historic mortgage crises casting thousands out of their homes, a corrupt and politicized justice department, disfunctional government...I can't go on. I really can't.

I also think that, beneath it all, the American people never really trusted George W. Bush but voted him into office because of a case of collective post traumatic stress post 9-11 that was goaded and egged on by the fearmongers in his administration. (Plus, they stole Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. But I digress.)

I don't think the voters will fall for Rovian tactics again. Shock therapy has snapped 'em out of their PTSD. And frankly, they're pissed.

I'm thinkin'...over time? In spite of being told over and over not to trust the black guy with the big smile but instead, the craggy-faced and charming old war hero...they'll go with their instincts.

As for the press? Well, I think coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war pretty well proved that the press, by and large, has long since lost touch with their own instincts.

Maybe it's time they learned something from the rest of us.