On Character: The Tragic Fate Of John McCain

11/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain was once an exceptional politician. He really was. He really was a maverick. He had real integrity. Much as any liberal might have disagreed with him on substance, his heroism as a POW was internally consistent with his political positions. Like, for example, his opposition to the Bush torture regime. Like his opposition to American jingoism and his support of a humane immigration policy. Like his willingness to call leaders of the Christian Right by their proper name: agents of intolerance.

All that is gone. John McCain has abandoned what he really believed. John McCain has betrayed himself. And he has done it for the one reason he swore he never would. He has authorized a campaign of sleaze in order to win an election.

This matters much more for him than it would for another man. There's a Shakespearean dynamic here. Like with Othello. When a simple warrior jettisons his simple values the consequences are entirely devastating.

A lifelong compromiser like Obama (if you didn't know he was that, you were living in a dream) has another kind of integrity. It's flexible. It was never complete and it never lapses. Obama is like FDR. He will return to his values no matter how far off he wanders in response to circumstances. He will never lose his way.

But a man like John McCain is utterly lost once he turns against himself. You can see it in the his face. There's an ugly vacuum where once there was a solid core. The man who said he would never surrender has surrendered.

I hope Obama gets a chance in the debate tomorrow night to express some sadness, some regret for this loss. I hope he gets a chance to pity John McCain.