John McCain: Worth the Fighting For
The last in a series of columns on books by presidential candidates.
Some say he's a maverick. May be. He's done his share of things his own way for his own reasons. But that isn't the part of him that is most interesting.
If nothing else, McCain has a tendency to dwell on the dark side. Lonely, in pain, constantly obsessed by the possibility of his own limitations, McCain calls it a “beautiful fatalism.” In his book Worth the Fighting For, you get a series of surprising examples of what it means to be a beautiful fatalist, to think and romanticize like John McCain. It starts with the assertion that Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is his favorite book and that he idolizes its protagonist, the doomed idealist Robert Jordan. Suffice it to say there are not legions of mainstream conservatives regularly comparing themselves to Robert Jordan, a character fighting on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But, beyond that, it is a fairly straightforward piece of hero worship. The intriguing note comes in the sentence, "A great man must always be his own man, I thought, remembering Jordan's lonely sacrifice but heedless of the book's warning not to carry individualism so far that it becomes egotism, and I looked for living examples to affirm my conviction." The phrase that jumps out is "heedless of the book's warning not to carry individualism so far that it becomes egotism." He can barely mention his hero without foreshadowing the ways that Jordan is going to blow it.
The second surprise comes with a film. Viva Zapata! The film in which Marlon Brando plays the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Again, strange movie for a conservative to like on the surface. But McCain is, typically, more drawn to the character type of Zapata than to the specifics of his cause. He likes the relentless — eventually even self-destructive — nature of Zapata's integrity. As with For Whom the Bell Tolls, though, there's an off note to McCain's interest in the movie. And it has to do with failure. There is a scene in the film in which Zapata reveals that he has become the very thing he had originally set out to fight. He has become the political leader indifferent to the real concerns of the common man. Realizing this, Zapata sets out once again in insurrection and is eventually gunned down. So there it is again — the man of integrity blowing it. The man of integrity losing his purpose in one compromise after another and then destroying himself in a last mad dash for integrity. It is as if integrity only comes into its own the second time around, after the compromise, after the shame, and with the cost of the eventual destruction of the protagonist. Integrity is a harsh mistress.
This leads us to the saddest chapter in the book, the chapter on Ted Williams. McCain titles it "Best Ever." It turns out that Ted Williams, legendary baseball player for the Boston Red Sox and the last hitter to hit over .400 in a single season, was mostly a wreck. He was great, no doubt. And he was a stubborn bastard who did everything the way he wanted to do it. But what really excites McCain is the sadness of it all. He quotes Williams in the following thoughts about his storied career: "I'm glad it's over… I wouldn't want to go back. I've got problems now. I've always been a problem guy. I'll always have problems." McCain likes Williams because he wanted to be the best at something and he was terrified the whole time in doing it. McCain thinks that Williams embodied a form of integrity that "leaves you unsure whether to be happy or sad for the man who accomplished it." He means this primarily as a compliment.
The final chapter of Worth the Fighting For is entitled "Straight Talk." It is about McCain’s run for the presidency in 2000. The focus of the chapter is about how his commitment to "straight talk" was a lie and a failure. In order to win the primary in South Carolina, McCain lied to the public and pretended that he was a supporter of states’ rights in an attempt to garner Southern votes. He pretended that he thought it was OK for South Carolina to display the Confederate flag on the capitol building. In fact, he thought it was an awful thing to do. But he wanted to be president. So he fudged the whole thing, tucked his integrity into his back pocket and made a fool of himself, to his undying shame.
That's how the book ends. The story of John McCain, beautiful fatalist. Sure he's a maverick, driven by a sense of honor and integrity that never leaves him alone. But that's the crux of it: It never leaves him alone. Integrity is a burden and a torture for John McCain, as much as it is an inspiration. He's writing a story, projected upon the national stage, about ideals and the way that they slam against the rocks of the human, all too human. The results are not very pretty. They do, however, portray a basic truth about what it is like to be a human being. He is:
involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. • 4 April 2008
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer , Harper’s , and The Virginia Quarterly Review . Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.