When I read John McCain’s account of his POW experience earlier this year I understood how central it was to forming his worldview and public character. David Ignatius seems to have had a similar experience after delving into McCain’s memoirs, “Faith of My Fathers.” Ignatius identifies a salient point:
But what makes McCain’s account of his captivity truly remarkable is not the heroism but the humility. In page after page, he praises men who he insists were braver than he was. Though even the toughest prisoners were broken by torture, he cannot forgive himself for signing his own confession: “I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever.” He survived through solidarity with other prisoners who were “a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor.”
Given the current back-and-forth on The Ego and the examination of Barack Obama’s enormous self-regard, the contrast between the two candidates is breathtaking. McCain himself has seemed from time to time to hint at the same theme as he looked back at his callow youth and exaggerated self-regard, which in retrospect he saw as entirely undeserved. McCain’s reminiscence sets up implicit contrast with his opponent, whom McCain suggests, suffers from this very arrogance.
So McCain’s ongoing jibes at Obama’s ego and celebrity status shouldn’t be seen in isolation. The other half of the equation is McCain himself, the anti-Obama. He’s not trendy, his rhetoric doesn’t soar, no one writes rap videos about him and he doesn’t have swooning fans. What he has is very old-fashioned humility and a heroic biography. That huge dichotomy between an accomplished, humble man and an arrogant, unaccomplished one is, I think, what McCain’s team is driving at.
It is not just that Obama’s rhetoric and appeal is so superficial, it is that is his celebrity status is totally divorced from any accomplishment which would entitle him to such regard. While McCain is the flipside: his virtues are underappreciated and uncelebrated.
Does anyone care? Any pundit worth his or her salt will remind you that Bob Dole didn’t beat Bill Clinton, proof that personal character isn’t always the deciding factor for many voters. But McCain is betting that sometimes personal virtue and character matter. (And when one candidate is so devoid of accomplishment and evidence of tested public character, it matters a lot.) I’m just not sure in the People magazine world in which we live whether that is a winning wager.