09/18/2006 05:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Once and Future John McCain

So is the old John McCain back? Are we seeing the re-emergence of the straight-talking Arizona maverick who delights liberals and vexes conservatives--especially George W. Bush--with his ideo-heterodoxy? At the climax of his political career, with the White House beckoning to him, McCain may have discovered that rare thing in politics: He might have discovered a principle that's more important to him than the presidency.

Never in his career, of course, has McCain been a true liberal. He's always been Goldwater-Reaganite; his lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union stands at 83 out of a possible 100.

Yet on a few issues--campaign finance, tobacco, global warming--McCain not only broke with conservatives, but actually led the fight against the right. Those independent stances were combined with an astonishingly magnanimous position on the Vietnam War and its aftermath; McCain fought bravely in that war, suffering enormously as a POW, but in the years thereafter, he never sought to one-up anti-war peaceniks, nor even pro-war chickenhawks. These characteristics, plus a good sense of humor, proved to be the stuff of media sainthood. And that sainthood blended into martyrdom in the wake of the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, when the Bush forces were widely accused of having won "dirty" over McCain. No wonder, then, that for much of this decade, the senator was seen as the anti-W., as every Bush-basher's favorite Republican.

But that reality seemed to change, in the last few years, as McCain, eyeing the White House in 2008, moved closer to Bush. It was a strange spectacle to see the Texan sinking in the polls--and the Arizonan moving closer to him, volunteering to pick up the sputtering Bush baton. But there was sound "strategery" there; so long as Bush held the hearts and minds of the "nominating wing" of the Republican Party, a presidency-minded McCain must have felt as if he had no choice other than to snuggle up to 43.

Then came the torture issue. The Bush position, which is to rewrite, if not ignore, America's adherence to the Geneva Convention, is popular with hardcore Republicans. Why give terrorists any quarter? Why allow beheaders any rights? That's the view of "the base." And so the likes of Sen. George Allen (R-Va) are happy to fall into line behind Bush, Cheney, and the waterboarders.

But not McCain. The Arizonan has led the fight against the proposed Bush policy, and he has brought several other Republicans with him, including Sens. John Warner and Lindsey Graham, plus former secretaries of state Colin Powell and George Shultz. And of course, the media and the rest of the chattering classes are delighted to have their St. John back, however briefly.

McCain, to be sure, has given Democrats a huge gift. The White House hoped to wage the fight over detainee policy against liberals and the ACLU, pinning their unpopular positions on the Howard Dean Party. But now, because of McCain, the fight is not Republicans vs. Democrats, it's Republicans vs. Republicans. And that's bad politics for the GOP in 2006.

Yet it's also bad politics for McCain in terms of the 2008 nomination. Yes, he will get credit, yet again, for being "his own man," but at the same time, he will be remembered by Republicans for crossing their commander-in-chief in wartime. And that will cost him, bigtime.

So why is McCain doing it? Why fight Bush now, when the Iowa caucus is barely more than a year away? Armchair psychologists will say that McCain is still working out his ill-feelings toward the Bush White House, but he has proven, in recent years, that he can swallow those bilious thoughts when he wants to.

But on the torture issue--which Bush euphemistically referred to as "the program" more than 20 times at his Friday press conference--well, McCain can't keep himself buttoned up. His true beliefs, evidently, have overcome his ambition. This issue, the preserving of the Geneva Convention, is one that McCain thinks is truly important, more important than his own future. McCain figures that if Geneva breaks down, the whole system of international law concerning combatants could break down, and, just as ominously, the mechanism for punishing future malefactors would collapse as well. The former POW went through hell in Hanoi four decades ago, when the North Vietnamese ignored Geneva; today, if he can possibly help it, he doesn't want to see any future American serviceperson suffer as he did.

That's a gutsy and remarkable position for McCain, made all the more remarkable because the political stakes are so high right now in 2006, and will be even higher in 2008. McCain's potential sacrifice, the forfeiture of the Oval Office, is so enormous that one must stand still for a moment, in hopes of hearing the voices of tortured anguish--past, present, and future--which animate the old Navy pilot who has two sons in the military today. Yes, we can hear them, if we choose to.

But then the noise of politics surrounds us again, as McCain, destined to be outshouted by his enemies, goes forth on his legislative quest. It's possible, of course, that he will bend on this issue, even break. But given his record, that's unlikely. So it's also unlikely that partisan Republican politics will be kind to McCain in the next year, but history might judge him better. And biographers will conclude that--whether one agrees or disagrees with him, loves or loathes him--the man is, in his sturdy mind and his redoubtable heart, first and foremost, a patriot.