The canonization of John McCain has begun. In his Monday New York Times column, William Kristol suggested that McCain isn't simply a candidate for president. He's something more-the next Winston Churchill who can lead the U.S. to victory in the war on terror. According to Kristol, who has long been a close friend of McCain's and quoted him reciting a turgid Victorian poem, he is a "not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian - rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled." For both Kristol and David Brooks, McCain epitomizes the belief in American national greatness that can replicate the glories of the nineteenth century British empire. In reality, their anachronistic exaltation of warfare as the highest test of manly courage may end up ruining the U.S., much as it did the British empire.
The neoconservative obsession with the Victorian era is longstanding-and most revealing. It dates back to Kristol's own mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, a prominent historian who has long sought to rehabilitate the often-scorned Victorians. In a series of books, including a new collection of essays just released by Yale titled The Spirit of the Age, she has mythologized the Victorians for shunning welfare and relying on thrift and self-initiative to create a benevolent empire. Himmelfarb and other neoconservatives such as Midge Decter believe that the rise of post-Victorian mores, including homosexuality and feminism, have weakened the manly virtues that are necessary for defending the homeland.
The neoconservatives, who believe, or pretend to believe, that supposed foes abroad always represent new Hitlers and that wimpy liberals are about to recapitulate the appeasement that English liberals espoused in the 1930s, are constantly searching for a new Churchill. They see Churchill as the last great representative of the Victorian era in contrast to the weaklings that surrounded him. (George W. Bush himself keeps a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office.) For the neocons, McCain, a military hero who has written a number of books and become a politician, eerily resembles Churchill himself. McCain himself has made his admiration for Churchill abundantly apparent in his most recent book, Hard Call, in which he hails the great man's prescience in warning of Germany's aggressive intentions in the run-up to both World War I and World War II. But more to the point, McCain represents for the neocons the ultimate synthesis of war hero and politician. And McCain, in turn, has been increasingly drawn to the neocons' militaristic vision of the U.S. as an empire that can set wrong aright around the globe.
The neocons became close to McCain in the 1990s, when they supported American intervention in the Balkans. According to the New Republic's John Judis, the first sign of neocon influence on McCain came in 1999. McCain delivered a speech at Kansas State University in which he touted "national greatness conservatism," arguing: "The United States is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history." He went on to state that the U.S. should have "every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity's benefit."
Since then, McCain has, of course, become the most prominent advocate of ramping up the U.S. effort in Iraq, not to mention Sudan and a variety of other hotspots. If McCain becomes president, the neocons will be in charge.
It's no small irony that they may well end up destroying the very American empire they seek to expand, just as the British empire collapsed during the past century.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the author of the newly released, They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons, and a senior editor at the National Interest.