John McCain: Worth the Fighting For

The last in a series of columns on books by presidential candidates.

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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.

   Candidates’ Stories

John McCain really grabs your attention when he blows it. When you
think about it, McCain blows it far more often than seems possible, or
at least survivable, in contemporary political life. But even before
that, even as the half-assed soldier he admits that he was, blowing it
was part of the picture. His war heroism revolves around getting shot
down and captured by the North Vietnamese, and the story finds its
climax when McCain signs a false confession under torture and then
tries to kill himself out of shame. Not exactly your garden-variety war
hero. In the end, he honored himself in refusing to be released before
any of his compatriots, but McCain himself has been dwelling on his own
failures and moments of weakness for a long time.

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 has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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