How McCain Got Dinged

Wednesday night John McCain made it official. “I am announcing that I will be a candidate for president of the United States,” he told David Letterman, adding that this was actually an announcement that he will make a formal announcement in April. Best line of the night came from bandleader Paul Shaffer: “He’s doing the formal announcement on Leno.”

Why did he do the Letterman show? To get his name in the paper, or rather to get his name in the paper followed by the word “announces” as opposed to the word “over.” A year ago he was pretty much on top, the past few months he’s lost steam.

Why was he once so hot and now so not?

Politics is like show business: Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s guessing. Everyone’s waiting to find out. Then, when it’s over, they tell you at great and knowing length why it happened.

Maybe the McCain story is as simple as what he’s always known, what he was taught, and what he experienced in war: The more time you spend in the air, the more you get dinged.

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Everyone knows his bio, but when you stop and look at it again, you realize it’s even more impressive, more moving, than you remember. John Sidney McCain III, born in the Panama Canal Zone on Aug. 29, 1936, third in a string of high-spirited men who would serve their country heroically. His father was active-duty Navy, his mother the daughter of an oil wildcatter in Texas and Oklahoma. Both Mr. McCain’s father (he liked subs) and grandfather (he liked ships) rose to the rank of admiral, the latter promoted posthumously from vice admiral in 1945.

John McCain III goes to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., attends the U.S. Naval Academy (class of 1958), becomes an aviator (he likes planes), is sent to Vietnam in the spring of 1967, and, on his 23rd bombing mission, on Oct. 26, 1967, is shot down by a surface to air missile. He ejects, breaking both arms and legs, is captured, is sent eventually to the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he spends much of his imprisonment in solitary. He refuses special treatment as the son of an admiral, is beaten and tortured, as are the others.

On March 14, 1973—34 years ago this month—he is freed, along with almost 600 other American prisoners. He receives the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross. He stays in the Navy, works as liaison on Capitol Hill, goes home to Arizona, and is elected to Congress from the First District, replacing John Jacob Rhodes. In 1986 he wins the Senate seat of Barry Goldwater. He is re-elected in landslides in 1992 and ‘98 and runs for president in 2000. His Straight Talk Express gets slammed at a South Carolina crossroads by a bullet train called The Inevitability of Bush. He is re-elected to the Senate in 2004 with 77% of the vote and runs now, again, for president.

What a life.

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In all, as he came up, he would have been an organic conservative, schooled in the old American rigors of duty and honor, shaped in a world that was competitive, aware of the existence of evil. A world in which not to be a conservative was like announcing, “I don’t understand life.” His patriotism, the patriotism of his family, was acted out and lived, as opposed to put on like a hat, or merely claimed.

No one in modern national-level politics has a better life story than his. In retrospect it is almost amazing that it didn’t beat that of George W. Bush, who wryly admitted to friends and supporters in 2000 that he was “a little light on the résumé.”

But Americans don’t elect résumés, they elect men. Here some aspects of Mr. McCain’s highly individualistic nature hurt him. He is funny, quick, brave, colorful. He is emotional, has a temper, carries grudges, harbors resentments. If the latter set of traits were not true, the former set would have won the Washington political establishment. As it is he has a portion of it, but many were hired, for money, as political advisers. This is a traditional, but at this point old-fashioned, way to spend money. All the advisers disagree; all of them gossip to reporters; most of them can define a problem but not a solution; and again, most don’t know anything. They were born for cable, always an interesting place, but one where you pay little price for being wrong.

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McCain & LettermanThere is the sense in Mr. McCain that he came to believe his résumé gives him special latitude. George W. Bush in 2000 felt he had to seem down-the-line conservative (though this involved some head faking). He had to tell you who he was because you couldn’t see it by looking at his history. I suspect Mr. McCain knew no one could question his life, that it showed who he was, and so he could do what he wanted in terms of policy and not jeopardize his support. After all, his whole life was a testament to conservative principles, so he could go against general conservative thinking on campaign reform, on immigration. He could hang with the liberal boy journalists on the bus—”My base!” he jokingly, truthfully, called them in 2004.

In 2000 he felt he could take on Christian conservative leaders in the South. Bad timing. In 2000 they were at the peak of their 20 years of power. Now their followers are tired and questioning after a generation of political activism. And many leaders seem compromised—dinged after all that time in the air. Mr. McCain could rebuke them now and thrive. Instead he decided to attempt to embrace them.

And there is Iraq. The war was generally popular from 2002 through roughly 2006, and Mr. McCain won broad credit from conservatives for standing with the president. But now that support, heightened by the surge debate, is costing him, not only with the general public but in a subtle way, I think, with Republicans. Republicans don’t abandon a Republican president in time of war, and they have a special relationship with this president, a simple admiration for who he is. At the same time, they don’t precisely want another W. for president, another man who seems just as convinced, stubborn, single-minded, invested.

One suspects Mr. McCain knows this but is stuck where he’s stuck and stands where he stands. What is his promise, his potential? It’s that he’s John McCain. In a changing world, he is a constant. He’s earned it. His promise is that he’s Moe Greene—he made his bones when the rest of them were out chasing cheerleaders.