I am aware that many Americans (including not a few conservatives) have read and enjoyed William Manchester's "Last Lion" series on the life of Sir Winston Churchill. In them, Manchester recounts the life of Churchill, a man born during Victoria’s reign and who lived to see his own political career dashed more than once—partly because of his connection with a bygone era but also because of controversial actions that put him at odds with leaders of his own party and the electorate at large.
When I read David Brooks’ recent column on John McCain (“The Character Factor”) I found that Brooks had put into words some thoughts I have had about John McCain over the past few months—thoughts of whether McCain might be America’s Last Lion. Of course, no analogy is perfect and the things that got Churchill in trouble—his management of Gallipoli, his old-school loyalty to Edward VIII and his outdated views on India—are different from those things that have made McCain an occasional pariah—like his stand on immigration reform and his views on torture.
The differences don’t end there, but the similarities are striking nonetheless.
History will view both men as having gruff personalities and even occasional temper tantrums. Both men experienced war first hand and spent time as prisoners (although McCain's experience was far, far more lengthy and grueling). Both had a tendency to rankle the powers that be, but also had a sense of when it was time to shut up and support the man at the helm—such as in wartime. In that vein, Manchester tells a story about Churchill, who, just after the invasian of Poland, surprised a dinner guest by denouncing a family member who had cracked a joke at the expense of Prime Minister Chamberlain. Churchill’s public and unqualified show of loyalty to a man whose policies he had strongly criticized and whom he had previously told many jokes about himself, was indicative of his sense of propriety per the times. Having watched the ceaseless mockery of our own Commander-in-Chief in a time of war by the likes of David Letterman, I have wondered what we have most forgotten as a Nation—the fact that we are at war or the principles that guide men like Winston Churchill and John McCain.
The character trait historians will find in both Churchill and McCain—a trait that was waning in the 20th Century and that is arguably near extinct now was described by David Brooks as "ancient honor." What is ancient honor? Well, it’s hard to explain, but I’ll give you an example. When McCain was a POW in North Vietnam—wounded and subject to extreme mistreatment–he was offered to go home because of the status of his father, a top Admiral in the U.S. Navy. McCain refused special treatment and spent over five years as a POW. Knowing what I know about John McCain, I have more than a hunch that he never would have shook hands with Mr. Ahmadinejad as did 15 Royal Navy personnel earlier this year—an act that surely had Horatio Nelson and Winston Churchill turning in their graves. While I don’t doubt that a week of captivity, being blindfolded and hearing guns cocked would rattle many, I sense that Western Civilization has grown to believe that anything is better than even the threat of pain. But that is where John McCain is different from most of us.
At the core of “ancient honor” is the notion that deprivation and even death are not as frightening as absconding one's principles. Maybe that is why McCain--who has actually stared death and torture in the face--has been a gadfly on the torture issue. Perhaps to him, America's honor at times even trumps its safety. But this is not to say McCain is weak, for of all the presidential candidates, only McCain has vowed to follow Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell. Just as Churchill was born to face the greatest madman of his generation, perhaps McCain is the one who born to face the modern menace of terrorism. I am confident that if there is one person in America who has the proverbial stiff upper lip, who is not in the slightest frightened by Osama bin Laden, and who is not rattled by Islamist threats, it is the Arizonan John McCain.
Churchill was considered an over the hill relic whose time had passed years before he led Britain through its finest hour. Similarly, we hear numskulls ask if Senator McCain is too old to be President. I am not sure whether to laugh or weep when I hear that question. My only response is that Senator McCain is neither overqualified nor over experienced for the job he seeks; rather he is indisputably the one candidate that has more experience for being Commander-in-Chief than any other.
Folks can fret over immigration (I fret over it myself), but the problem only gets worse while the diehards on both sides refuse to compromise. Senator McCain (unlike Churchill on India) may actually see the writing on the wall and realize that there will be no improvement in this mess until all sides realize they will never get exactly what they want.
Ultimately, it is McCain's honor and peculiar traits that intrigue me in these troubled times. Admittedly, a different candidate is my favorite, but for the past few months I have not been able to shake the image of two extraordinary men who seemed to have been groomed for extraordinary times: Winston Churchill and John McCain.
Will these thoughts change my vote? It’s a possibility.