John McCain's been a gambler since the day he was born, and not just at the $100-a-chip craps tables (as the New York Times reported yesterday). At the Naval Academy he gambled on bucking upperclassmen, harming his reputation, and on not studying for math exams, ending up near the bottom of his class.
In 1981, he turned down an offered admiral's star to try instead politics in Arizona. In 2000 he gambled on a presidential campaign and lost, to a younger George W. Bush, tarnishing his reputation as a straight shooter in the process.
Last month, he gambled when he picked an almost unknown Sarah Palin for VP. What were her ethics like? Did she carry baggage? Would she be able to talk coherently to the media? By the way in which the McCain campaign has been hiding her, some might speculate that the answer is no.
On Wednesday, McCain went double-down, shutting down his campaign, and vowing to stay away from debates until the Bailout Bill is law, then changing his mind. Will this latest move be seen as a sacrifice for his country? Or as frantic and failing ploy to delay the 26 Oct. debate and squeeze out the VP debate?
Having decided to debate Obama last Friday, he gambled on attacking personally ("he doesn't get it") multiple times, energizing the GOP base while irritating to many unaffiliated and undecided moderates. How will this net out?
On many of these questions, it's too early to tell. But one thing is clear: John McCain consistently flies by the seat of his pants. Sometimes this works out, and sometimes (as in his being part of the "Keating 5", America's prior major banking scandal almost 20 years ago) it doesn't.
Is McCain the sort of gambler who knows both when to hold them and when to fold them? Will McCain recognize that Palin is so embarrassing that even conservative columnists are praying for him to retrench? Or will he try to bluff his way through what now appears to be a hastily and poorly conceived choice? Or the sort of gambler who sometimes gets in over his head, as investigative reporter Gerald Posner just suggested?
And, more to the point: Is a reckless gambler who may have lost a step really the sort of person we need as the next President of the United States?
Gary Marcus is author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.
Guest blogger Phil Marcus, Gary's father, is President of NegotiationPro.com