Peggy's Confusion: Some "Political Bullsh*t" About John McCain

11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, I had a revealing exchange with Peggy Noonan on MSNBC's morning program "Morning Joe" that highlighted a growing confusion on Ms. Noonan's part (and presumably others who share her political leanings) about John McCain's candidacy. To be fair, Ms. Noonan distinguished herself some weeks ago from toeing the party line on John McCain in some offhanded remarks she made regarding Sarah Palin. "Most qualified?" Noonan scoffed to fellow Republican strategist Mike Murphy. "No. I think they went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives." Days later, Ms. Noonan haplessly explained that her remarks had been taken "out of context," which may only have meant that, since they were captured accidentally on an open mike, they were taken out of the context of a private conversation.

But yesterday's discussion again found Ms. Noonan -- now publicly -- scratching her head in confusion. The segment began with a quote from my book The American Way of War in which Dwight Eisenhower warns the American people about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. This quotation provoked a thoughtful discussion led by Mike Barnicle of the counterintuitive fact that certain military commanders can prove more anti-war than their more trigger happy civilian counterparts. I spoke of my own experience in recent years showing my 2006 film Why We Fight several times at West Point Military Academy and how impressed I've been at the uncompromising analysis undertaken by its cadets and command staff at a time of war in comparison with the more superficial dialogue too-often taking place among civilians.

This led Ms. Noonan to ask me with a hopeful glimmer whether I agreed that one of the strengths of the McCain candidacy was that the senator's military service could enable him to show the kind of no-bullshit leadership in reining in out-of-control defense spending. "Of all the candidates this year," Ms. Noonan offered, "I thought he was the one that could cut military spending... get rid of the garbage. Did you pick that up from him?"

Having spent the last six years researching Eisenhower's remarkable career as well as the more mercurial path taken by Senator McCain, I could not concur. Taking nothing away from McCain's heroism as an airman and POW, I suggested that it's wrongheaded to assume that his having been a soldier in some way gives him the kind of commanding authority about the intricate dynamics of our military-political-economic system that general-turned president Eisenhower had. To assume this is to forget that soldiers follow and generals lead and that, for members of Congress, military-industrial corruption is a way of life.

So, unlike Ms. Noonan, I would never have expected John McCain or any other member of Congress to prove a true opponent of military spending. Yes, there are a handful of senators and congresspeople in non-defense-oriented states who have consistently resisted defense sector corruption. But John McCain isn't one of them. Sure, in his 22 years in the senate he has taken an occasional position against cases of really outrageous abuse like the 2004 Boeing tanker scandal and the saga of Duke Cunningham. But as with so much else about John McCain, it's hard to see this stance as part of any kind of consistent pattern.

In Why We Fight, for example, he was outspoken about the need for "a public investigation" of Halliburton's abuses and yet he has pursued no such thing in Congress, nor so much as mentioned Halliburton on the campaign trail. Now it may be me who sounds naïve. But if it is naïve to think that McCain might mention the company most accused of cronyist corruption in the past eight years on the campaign trail, then let's stop deluding ourselves that he is any kind of real opponent of corruption. He's a politician, careful not to upset his already tenuous relationship with the Bush White House. So when it serves him politically to condemn Halliburton's abuses -- as it was when he interviewed for my film -- he takes that view. When, a few years later, he's running for president and seeking to establish his bonafides with the Republican base, a different John McCain emerges. Recall that, more than any other legacy, John McCain is best known for having been a victim of torture as a POW. And yet, even his position on U.S. torture policy has tragically flip-flopped over time under the strains of political strategy.

To be fair to John McCain, one thing he and Barack Obama have in common is that both have pledged to increase, not decrease, defense-spending at a time of economic collapse and the recent staggering defense appropriation of $612 billion. While Obama's onetime principled vehemence against the Iraq war has drifted into a candidacy of selectively applied militarism (including support for a "surge" in Afghanistan), McCain has put the finest point on the matter, pledging in no uncertain terms to freeze federal spending in all areas except defense. So there you have it.

But what lesson does all this hold? Essentially, I think Ms. Noonan found herself looking for some of that "political bullshit about narratives" that she had scorned off the record with Mike Murphy. The blurry narrative of the tortured POW who becomes a late-life renegade watchdog against corruption -- this is a story with weak roots predicated on dimestore psycho- and political analysis. Ms. Noonan seemed to me to be searching, as McCain's electoral map shrinks, for some solid ground on which to rely in her candidate's last redeeming area -- and the conversation seemed to be taking even that away. To her credit, Ms. Noonan was really thinking out loud and doing so quite openly. Citing the failure to raise the military corruption issue as a missed opportunity, she offered this disillusioned admonishment of the McCain campaign for having failed to present its own strengths. "Well, um, well," she struggled, coming close to confirming my suggestion that McCain had not run as a defense renegade, "I would tell you this: it was never discussed on the campaign trail." No it wasn't. But contrary to Ms. Noonan's hopeful view, this was not an accidental nor aberrant omission but one consistent with the career of a clever politician.