It is, of course, all that Republicans are talking about: So what do you think of John McCain? What do you think of what’s happened? A lot of them seem not only surprised but delighted. Unexpected history is happening, and politics is fun again.
It is tempting to see in the political contest between George W. Bush and John McCain the clash of two mythic American archetypes, the Flyboy and the Boss’s Son. The Flyboy at the moment is making a strong impression. The Boss’s Son at the moment seems lost. Republican primary voters are the girl who will choose between them.
Mr. McCain of course is the Flyboy. He flew in on a wing and a prayer, dashing, sardonic and slightly hung over, like Dana Andrews in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” You met, he took you dancing, you marveled at the medals on the damp and smoky wool of his uniform. Later he fell asleep on your mother’s couch, where he had flashbacks: “Jump, Kowalski, jump!”
“Capt. McCain, Capt. McCain, you’re having a nightmare!”
[Header] Authentic and Adorable
You laughed together at the hypocrisies of the local burghers—he’s an outsider, and deep down you’ve always felt like an outsider too. There’s a downside—they say he has a temper; there was a scandal with a banker; he hangs out with those boys on the bus, whom you’ve never liked. Sometimes the things he says are self-contradictory, or don’t quite hold together. But he’s different—authentic, and brave, and adorable.
He has captured your imagination. This may get serious. He seems such a relief from—from that other man in your life, George W., the Boss’s Son. He’s not from a war movie, he’s—he’s Rodney in “Peyton Place”! No, he’s Cliff Robertson in “Picnic”—the factory owner’s boy, affable, competent, clean and good, with soft brown hair and a boyish smile. He’s destined to run the family business and be a town leader, surrounded by dependable family retainers and advisers. He’ll be a good provider, and a good father, too. But you perceive within him a diffidence, and maybe an ambivalence. Does he even want to take over dad’s job and settle down?
You’ve been dating him for a year, and everyone thought marriage was in the cards, but now—now there’s Flyboy. And suddenly you realize one of the biggest reasons you couldn’t get serious about the Boss’s Son is that your parents wanted you to! Mom and pop—let’s call them “the Republican establishment”—kept telling you he’s a catch. They kept pushing you, for your own good. Well, heck—let them marry him!
* * *
The McCain phenomenon seems to me less a crusade than a crush, and this is all so un-Republican it is breathtaking. Republicans have tended to vote on issues. They agreed with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and ’84; it wasn’t his charm. They agreed with George Bush père in ’88. In ’92 they were mad at him—because of what he’d done on the issues! Nineteen ninety-six was just one long mess but now, in 2000, won’t Republicans return to their usual ways?
Maybe not. Gov. Bush talks more about the issues Republicans care about, and takes the kind of stands they support. Sen. McCain doesn’t talk about the issues they care most about, and when he does, when he talks about something like defense, his position is hard to understand. He wants to improve military readiness, fill out the hollowed-out armed forces—and by the way, spending should stay at Clinton levels.
It is all so surprising and fascinating. And God bless him, only Bill Clinton could have brought us to this pass. It is yet another example of Clinton-shock. The effect of Mr. Clinton on Republicans, as much as it has been talked about, is still not fully appreciated. But the sheer concussive affect of having a president who Republicans think is a bad man, not a patriot, a truly harmful presence in American life—the effect of Bill Clinton on on-the-ground Republicans has been so utterly jarring, that it has left them abandoning the logic that has long guided them, and supporting in droves a man they don’t especially agree with, for the simple reason that they feel sure he is not Bill Clinton.
Mr. McCain seems in fact the opposite of Mr. Clinton. Bill Clinton dodged the draft and watched the war on TV, John McCain lived it in the Hanoi Hilton; Mr. Clinton is big and glib, Mr. McCain is bantam-like and peppery; Mr. Clinton is smooth, Mr. McCain sputters; Mr. Clinton transparently lives by the polls, Mr. McCain relishes telling Portsmouth, N.H., they may have to close the base; Mr. Clinton is famous for lying, Mr. McCain rides a bus called the Straight Talk Express.
They seem different. But one of the reasons for the anger of the Republican establishment—the mom and dad of this piece—is that they think in their hearts that Mr. McCain is another Clinton. He looks different and sounds different and has a different history, but he’s a similar kind of man—a strange and self-promoting egotist, one who is unpredictable, inconsistent and vain. They’ve worked with him for years, know him, and think the anti-Clinton is really Clinton II. And what some thoughtful Republicans are trying to puzzle out is whether the Washington establishment dislikes Mr. McCain because he is so much his own man, or because he is so much a flawed man.
For a lot of other Republicans, Mr. McCain right now has three big advantages. First, “mom and pop” don’t like him, and he and the voters are relishing the rebellion. Second, the Flyboy wants it. And when you want it, you don’t mess yourself up with things that keep you from getting it. Does the boss’s son want it? If he wants it he can probably have it, but if he really is at heart ambivalent . . . well, ambivalent men don’t win the presidency. They usually don’t get the girl, either.
[Header] Message: Himself
Third, Mr. McCain already has his message: himself. The antiestablishment hero who’ll come in and clean up the mess in Washington, who can see through its hypocrisies and do something about them. Mr. Bush’s job is harder: to retool a message for the changing, and concussed, conservative base.
What a year, what a surprising struggle, and as to how it will turn out, Hollywood offers mixed signals. In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the girl goes with Flyboy, and everything works out right. In “Picnic,” she rejects the Boss’s Son, and you can tell it’s not going to end happily.