The Real McCain

12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

And so, now the election is over, and all's right with the world. There is John McCain on "Saturday Night Live," making fun of himself. There is John McCain, giving what is universally described as a wonderfully "gracious" concession speech. There is John McCain going on the "Tonight Show," making jokes at his expense, and being warm and ingratiating. There is John McCain actually traveling to Chicago to pay court to Barack Obama.

This is the "Good McCain," we see and are told. This is the "Old McCain," that we all knew and loved. This is the John McCain who, pundits tell us, if he only had showed up earlier, might have won over a nation and become president. This was the Real McCain.


I'm sorry, there is no "good" and "bad" McCain. That's John McCain, period. If John McCain has good sides and bad sides, fine. We all have good and bad sides. Not all are as ethereally good as his - and not all as shockingly bad. John McCain didn't have an out-of-body experience after he got the Republican nomination. John McCain didn't have an evil twin campaigning for him. That was John McCain. That - all of that - was John McCain. We got to see him in full, not just the little endearing sit-downs with Jon Stewart, not just the chummy Straight Talk Express" group hugs, where he charmed and cultivated the press, but all of it. That's what you get with a campaign, there's no shadows, just the spotlight. For all the complaints about how long the process is, at its best, when it works, it reveals character.

Without a long campaign, Barack Obama is not the next President of the United States. He's a little-known challenger. Without a long campaign, Sarah Palin is not back in Alaska. She's a mavericky, hockey mom who makes one, well-read speech that someone else wrote.

Without a long campaign, John McCain doesn't look cranky, petulant and even lost, suspending his campaign. Doesn't daily change his economic policy. Doesn't look foolish trotting out Joe the Joe.

All of it. We saw John McCain. The Real John McCain. The good, the bad and the very, very ugly.

No matter how lovely and ingratiating John McCain may come across now - now that the election is over - the damage that his campaign did to the next President of the United States, riling up his base that supposedly a Muslim anti-American terrorist will be leading the country is something that no quips with Jay Leno can undo. It was reprehensible, and he gets no post-election adorable pass. Now that the election is over, that base still ignorantly and harmfully believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim anti-American terrorist. This divides America. This harms America.

Further, John McCain's "gracious" concession speech was hardly gracious. It was absolutely fine and perfectly normal -but he looked pissed off and, worse, didn't read the room the riot act when they actually started booing the next president. He simply said, "No, no," and went right on. What he should have said is, "No!! This is not acceptable. Barack Obama is going to be the next President of the United States, leading us all, and he not only deserves all of our patriotic support - not just for the man, but for the honor of the office - but he earned it. "

That's what he should have said. And far more. That would have been gracious. Instead, we got merely, "No, no."

To be clear, the speech was fine. And honestly, I didn't expect anything more that that. He should have been upset. Anyone would have been. And he should have offered his warm congratulations, just as he did. Because that's what our presidential candidates always do. (The only truly nasty concession speech I've ever heard was by Neal A. Sturbish. But he was fictional. A creation by the brilliant comics Bob and Ray.) So, it was perfectly, absolutely, unquestionably fine. But just because it didn't stoop to the nastiness of the rest of the McCain campaign doesn't make it "gracious."

I wish John McCain well. I'm awed by the great that he has done. I hope he is a strong voice for conciliation and distinguished policy in the Senate.

But the damage he did to America during the campaign was incalculable - from risking the nation with the egregiously unqualified Sarah Palin to knowingly wrongly-demonizing his opponent with long-lasting affect to the nation. (And we know it was "knowingly" because we finally saw him - once, just once - save himself from going to hell by taking the microphone from a lunatic at his rally and explain that Barack Obama is a "good man"). And no amount of warm, endearing appearances on "The Tonight Show" and trips to Chicago will change that.

If John McCain wants to regain his honor, he needs to address that. And he needs to do everything in his power to convince his followers of the error of his ways. That would be gracious. That would be honorable. That would be patriotic.

Until then, we can continue to admire his greatness and be galled by how he tarnished it all.

And that - all of that - in the end, is the Real McCain.