The Politics of Personality: McCain Promises Truthfulness and Patriotism, but That Doesn't Add Up to a Domestic Policy

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, March 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Personality: McCain Promises Truthfulness and Patriotism, but That Doesn't Add Up to a Domestic Policy


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


John McCain missed the 1960s. His captivity in Hanoi covered the exact period--1967 to 1973--that we think of as that era. He's a fun-loving '50s guy whose recreation consists mostly of hiking, watching football and barbecuing. When he took a day off last week to recharge at his cabin in the mountains near Sedona, Ariz., McCain spent most of his waking hours cooking for guests. On the porch sit no fewer than four "Turbo" gas grills. "You know where they put in that putting green [at the White House]?" he asks. "I'd put in grills." His specialty is spicy chicken, which he patiently grills for an hour and a half over low heat without turning it, so as to "cook everything bad out of it--a purifying thing."

For now, anyway, McCain embodies a familiar purification ritual in American life. Great suffering can ennoble, especially if the survivor emerges with his sense of humor. Reform crusades are about cleaning the system of its toxins. As George W. Bush is learning, this flame burns at a level beyond politics. A Democrat who agrees with McCain on few issues stood up at one of his town-hall meetings last week at Sacramento State University and said she was ashamed to tell her young son about the current president of the United States. She asked if the boy could come forward and shake a hero's hand, which he did. Just another McCain moment.

We've seen other purifying elections: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 after the scandals of the Truman years; Jimmy Carter in 1976 after Watergate, promising, like McCain, to never tell a lie. The problem with the politics of personality, of course, is that it gets personal. McCain now openly grimaces at the memory of Bush hugging him backstage at their first debate last November. "It was all this, 'I love ya, man. You're my buddy. I'm proud of ya.' Then I'm suddenly this awful guy, and the only thing that had changed was I won New Hampshire."

In South Carolina Bush winked at the bucket of sludge right-wingers dumped on McCain's head and, after winning, said once again he was "proud" of his opponent. Then, having lost Michigan, Bush forgot his Andover manners and failed to call McCain on primary night with congratulations, a standard political courtesy McCain had extended to Bush after he lost South Carolina. Bush aides are unapologetic. They say McCain's Michigan phone banks introduced Catholicism as a divisive issue for the first time since 1960. Fair point. After weeks of phony TV ads charging that McCain's not a real reformer, they've finally found hypocrisyland. Those "advocacy calls" to Catholic voters do violate the senator's pledge to stay positive. But Bush can't point that out without reviving the whole story of his visit to anti-Catholic Bob Jones University. McCain's got him cornered with the Catholic vote and won't let up with the calls unless Bush pulls all his TV attack ads. …

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