On Wednesday John McCain distinguished himself with a closely argued and eloquent address in which he spoke seriously and at length of his position on Iraq. He said America faces “an historic choice” with “ramifications for Americans not yet even born.”
“Many Democrats,” he said, view the war as “a political opportunity,” while Republicans view it as “a political burden.” But it is neither, he said. It is not a political question to be poll-tested but a challenge that bears on our continuance as a great nation. We must stay and fight and win.
“It may be standard-setting,” the Hotline said of the remarks the next day, “perhaps the most powerful plea a war supporter has . . . sent to the American people since the troop surge began. Has any other presidential candidate written a speech to persuade—importune—an audience to change their minds?”
You can agree or disagree with Mr. McCain, but where he stands is clear—and clarity these days, from our candidates, feels like a gift. As does certitude. He isn’t running from the war but owning it. A political rival might say, “He has no choice.” But there’s always a choice.
My larger point, however, is that he sounded like a serious man addressing a serious issue in a serious way. This makes him at the moment stand out.
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There is a sort of stature gap in the presidential campaign so far, isn’t there? A lack of personal height among the candidates, a lack of the bearing that befits the office they seek.
Here was Rudy Giuliani this week in a speech in California. No one much noted it—he was lucky it was subsumed by the Imus wave. But this is how Mr. Giuliani opened a speech to citizens considering his candidacy for the American presidency. “Thank youse all very much for invitin’ me here tuh-day, to this meeting of the families from different parts’a California.”
He was imitating Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” (The rendering comes from a Newsday report.) Actually the character of Don Corleone, as drawn by Mario Puzo, was possessed of a certain verbal elegance, but never mind. Mr. Giuliani’s imitation was clear enough to inspire in the audience a smattering of applause and, apparently, laughter.
Earlier in the week, in reaction to a spate of critical stories about his wife, Judith, he asked reporters to leave her alone: “I am a candidate. She’s a civilian, to use the old Mafia distinction.”
Ah. Can’t have enough candidates for president who whimsically employ the language of mobsters.
Rudy is No. 1 in the GOP polls, but he has been displaying the worst stature gap on the trail. He can’t see why his wife sets people’s teeth on edge; he can’t see why it would disturb us to have her at cabinet meetings; he assures us she actually won’t be at cabinet meetings. This was followed by his statement that of course he continues to be pro-choice on abortion, and yeah, actually, he’s probably also for taxpayer funding of abortion, but maybe not.
There is an embarrassing ad-hoc-ness, a bush-leagueness to this. It’s as if he hasn’t thought it through, as if he’s just deciding everything each day. But by the time you’re running for president you should have decided.
At the very least a major candidate should by now have absorbed and internalized that he is running for what is actually the presidency of the United States, and not, say, the Las Vegas City Council.
From Mike Huckabee this week, a similar contribution to the august nature of the endeavor. He said if Republicans don’t start judging the private lives of the Republican candidates for president they should just “apologize to Bill Clinton.” That’ll class things up. Mitt Romney at the same time was talking about shooting varmints with all the rifles he does or does not own.
None of these are as bad as what may be the worst moment in the entire campaign so far, that being Hillary Clinton’s adopting of a deep Southern drawl when she spoke at a church last month in Selma, Ala.
“Ah don’t feel no ways tarred, ah come too far. . . . And the chair of all the mares in the country, Mare Palmer from Trenton, New Jersey . . “
Oh my goodness. It was so embarrassing, so lead-footed and cynical, so patronizing. You know she was shocked that it didn’t go over because she’d seen her husband hop up his own accent and go with the sing-song cadences a hundred times in his career, a thousand times, and no one ever knocked him for it. But he was good at it. And he was, actually, a Southerner. He wasn’t adopting an entire new regional accent and calling it his own.
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So what’s going on here? “Can’t nobody here play this game?” The presidency is an august office. Why are these candidates acting so small when the job they think they deserve is so big?
Maybe it’s just that people have less dignity these days, and so candidates do too. A few decades ago personal dignity became equated with stiffness and pretension. There was nothing in it for politicians anymore. (It all might have started in 1968, when Richard Nixon went on “Laugh-In” and said, “Sock it to me.” But that worked because he had actual personal dignity to spoof.) Maybe we’ve reached the point where anyone who’d run for president is almost definitionally strange. Maybe it’s that the candidates so far are just the kind of people who’d make it to the top of the greasy pole, scramblers by nature whose main talent is energy, not judgment.
But I have a different theory. I think it’s that all our candidates for president have met, or know well, too many former and sitting presidents. They’ve seen them up close, they know them, they have seen their flaws and mess and inadequacy. Knowing a lot of former presidents, and a lot of incumbents, will give you a too mortal sense of what the presidency is.
The problem with former presidents is that knowing them keeps you from being awed by the presidency. When you haven’t met them, you have a more austere and august sense of who they are, and what a president is.
Candidates on the trail today would be better off keeping as their template for the office Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln—the unattainable greats. It’s no good to just be thinking, At least I’m better than Clinton, at least I’m better than Bush.
Something to reach for even if you know it will exceed your grasp. But it’s good to be reaching upward, not stooping.