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

The McCain Mutiny and Congress Courageous

This week has elicited a plethora of reactions as I have observed events, some of them quite surprising.

I was trying to figure out whom McCain reminded me of in the debates, until a friend supplied it: Captain Queeg. "Obama just doesn't understand. By scientific methods I proved that the strawberries were taken from the locker. It would be dangerous to let that man assume control of the ship in a storm." The hunched shoulders, the strange pained sneer -- a combination of a soul in torment and a petty tyrant -- the oddly mechanical delivery, it was Bogart in The Caine Mutiny. As for Obama, well, his performance has been analyzed enough.

Which is something that Obama has to find a way to highlight: the question of character, as demonstrated in the personalities that each man revealed during the debate. It's not just that McCain shoots from the hip, goes with his gut, and panics in a crisis, although all of those traits have been richly manifestled in the past week. Conversely, it's not just that Obama stays cool, respects his elders even when he thinks they have gone round the bend, or looks good in a suit. Although he does.

Beyond that, the candidates revealed something about their personalities. Nothing new, necessarily, but undecided voters should have been paying attention, and Obama should figure out a way to make them focus. McCain showed his mean streak, and his tendency toward personal pettiness. Obama showed... well, his honor. It is not honorable to be nasty or disrespectful to John McCain, even if you think him a dangerously deluded man. It would not be honorable to pretend that there are no points of agreement, or to deny credit where it is due. So I have new nicknames for them both: Captain Queeg and The Honorable Schoolboy.

Meanwhile, this week Congress did the one thing I never would have expected: the members of Congress lived up to their responsibilities. In both houses, in both parties. The House Republicans' insistence on their principles -- most of which I consider ill-considered and wrongheaded as a matter of economics -- and the Democratic leaders' patient negotiations, and the Senate Republicans' blend of cooperation and resistance, all led to a far, far better program than the one Secretary Paulson initially proposed.

In so many ways, on so many issues, congressional Democrats have been doormats for the administration, and congressional Republicans have been pointlessly obstructionist. But this was a crisis. And to my frank astonishment, in a moment of genuine crisis the members of Congress -- both parties, in both houses -- rose to the occasion. I don't know whether the plan that was announced today will "work"; defining "working" is complicated, given the flexibility in the Secretary's mandate and the possible range of issues that may arise over the next six months. But it was a serious, thoughtful, principled and public-spirited effort by our elected representatives to bring their principles and their pragmatism to bear on a profoundly important issue.

In Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Pericles describes the Athenian Way: deliberation and daring. We will deliberate, and argue, and vote, and having settled on a course of action we will pursue it with vigor. This week Congress lived up to that mandate, against massive public pressure against any form of "bailout." The path of the demagogue was easy: only a few members of Congress shirked their duties and took that path. To the representatives in both houses, in both parties, I say "Bravo." Let's hope it was enough.