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Will Pitt: The American Tragedy of John McCain

The American Tragedy of John McCain

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Friday 06 April 2007

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

- T. S. Eliot

Arizona Sen. John McCain took a walk through a Baghdad market on April Fool's Day, and may well have burned his presidential campaign down to the ground in the process. That little stroll has visited upon his head a deluge of humiliation and shame vast and astonishing enough to beggar imagination, and that was before the bodies started hitting the ground.

Translated into mathematical terms, McCain's walk was Pythagorean in scope, squared hypocrisy added to squared idiocy equaling squared disgrace. In political terms, McCain's Baghdad walk was a full-blown, bull-moose, train-wreck disaster of truly galactic proportions: a veritable Hindenberg of campaign photo-op debacles. It was so mind-bendingly ugly and deranged and disgusting that the once-iconic "Dukakis in the Tank" blunder now seems quaint by comparison.

The genesis of this catastrophe, in case you missed it, was a verbal gaffe by McCain during a widely broadcast interview last week. After enduring several minutes of sharp interrogation regarding his staunch support of Bush, the war and the "surge," a neuron within his logic circuits apparently misfired. He claimed, with an entirely straight face, that the streets of Baghdad are today entirely safe for an American to walk down. This whopper made even the most shamelessly craven war apologists shake their heads in public, and forced McCain to undertake a desperate face-saving lunge to recover some shred of credibility.

McCain traveled to Baghdad to prove his claim correct, and the pictures appeared shortly thereafter. In the first available frames, the senator was shown walking through a Baghdad marketplace wearing a Kevlar vest, a general on his right and a troop on his left, and a second troop three steps ahead brandishing his rifle. While this kind of protection detail seemed to undermine his claims of safety, the escort and the vest could easily be understood as normal and necessary precautions taken to protect a visiting dignitary. For a time, McCain appeared to have made his point.

It didn't last. On the heels of those narrow-scope photos came reports of what McCain's entourage was actually comprised of. That "safe" Baghdad market had been flooded with more than one hundred battle-ready troops and armored Humvees. Three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache attack helicopters roared overhead, and sharpshooters were posted on the surrounding rooftops. Simply put, McCain's "safe" street was one overly loud mouse-fart away from being paved with flaming lead during every step of that little walk.

To compound the calamity, a report emerged two days later describing the abduction and slaughter of 21 Iraqis who worked in the marketplace McCain's mini-Normandy force had stormed the previous Sunday, an obvious act of retribution for his visit by a violent Baghdad militia. Already belied by the revealed firepower he brought along, McCain's "safe" walk in Iraq led directly to yet another horrific Baghdad bloodbath. There is bad, there is awful, and then there is this thing, this quantum singularity of ignominy that bends the very light now shining upon it.

Call it farce, call it folly, condemn it for its drenching hypocrisy and the mortal consequences suffered by 21 innocent people. One must also see this, in the end, as a true American tragedy of historic proportions.

Once upon a time, John McCain was a man who commanded and deserved great respect. Beyond the awe-inspiring courage and strength that marked his Vietnam service was the integrity he displayed, for the most part, in his political life. While his conservative views did not jibe with many, there was something about his conduct in office, his independence of thought within the rigid confines of his party, that made Americans stand up and take notice. Even the scandals involving him, most notably the embarrassing Keating Five debacle, did not permanently tarnish his image.

This was the man, recall, who came within an eyelash of derailing the George W. Bush Express during the 2000 race, thrashing the Texas governor by 16 points in the New Hampshire primary. A great many people who knew even then that Bush wasn't up for the job he sought breathed a huge sigh of relief after that, because even in disagreement, they saw in McCain a man of honor whose politics did not matter as much as the apparent content of his character.

The roots of this tragedy can be found in the events which took place in the days following the 2000 New Hampshire primary, when all eyes turned to the contest in South Carolina. Bush had all the GOP money and endorsements, but McCain had suddenly made a hash of that seemingly foregone anointment. What followed stands as one of the ugliest chapters in modern American political history.

Bush's people deployed a whisper campaign against McCain, mostly within the Christian Evangelical community of South Carolina, that labeled the senator "the fag candidate," smeared his wife Cindy as a drug addict, claimed their adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually black and the issue of an illicit and interracial liaison, questioned whether his sanity had survived his POW experience, and even went so far as to accuse him of collaborating with the communists in Vietnam to ease his time in that prison. Bush wound up winning the primary by 11 points, and the McCain campaign never recovered.

McCain's simmering rage over what happened in South Carolina was manifestly evident; for many political moons thereafter, the senator could not be compelled even at gunpoint to speak a kind word about either Bush or the Evangelical shock-troops who had propelled that slander-fest against him and his wife. Bush, for his part, treated McCain like a puff adder at all times, avoiding even the possibility of a venomous counterstrike from his furious former opponent by keeping him at a distance.

And then, something happened. It started slowly, with McCain appearing to set aside his anger to defend Bush as the 2004 presidential contest approached. McCain became a Bush campaign staple, and worse, was the respected face and voice who came to defend the administration whenever they made another incredible mess. It was McCain, perhaps more than any other political figure, who helped Bush hold on to the centrists long enough to make it through that second election. The senator's reputation and good word, for many, were enough to convince folks to wait and see.

Over the last year or so, that reputation and good word have fallen to dust. John McCain has expended vast energies trying to staple himself to every Evangelical Christian leader with clout in the Republican Party. He has become the most unabashed supporter of the Iraq war, of each failed and foolish policy put forth in the occupation, a process that culminated in the horrorshow at that Baghdad marketplace on April Fool's Day. He now wears the blinders needed to believe there is hope in Iraq, and there are 21 new bodies in a marketplace over there to prove it.

McCain has embraced George W. Bush, literally and figuratively, as some sort of long-lost brother. In doing this, he betrayed not only the individualism that once defined him, but gave the American people a demonstration of how insipid politics without principle can truly be. The very people who so viciously attacked McCain and his family in 2000 are now, apparently, his best friends in the world. One wonders if the senator avoids facing himself in the mirror nowadays because he does not want to see the whore's face in the reflection.

Even those who disagree with his politics must admit, with hard-won hindsight, that McCain circa 2000 would have been far preferable to George W. Bush. If more Republicans in our government today were like McCain was then, we would all be in a far better place. That distinction has been erased, and John McCain has become just another GOP lickspittle who toes the bloody line and refuses to admit, despite all evidence, that his new best friends have failed us all. This is, simply put, a tragedy for him.

It is our American tragedy, as well, because McCain became this sad fraud out of absolute necessity. One cannot hope to gain the GOP nomination for president without winning over that party's hard-right absolutist Evangelical Christian base, and the opinions almost universally espoused by that base are a lot of the reason this nation is in such dire straits. Our tragedy is found in their power over any national Republican candidate, and over the administration currently running the republic into the ground.

John McCain's reputation is destroyed. He has become one of T.S. Eliot's hollow men, bereft by his own actions of the formidable image that once defined him, and is now just another cheaply-bought candidate peddling himself for pennies on the dollar to the very wretches who once savaged his character and family. He is gone, just completely gone.

Another poet, Yeats, once described a world where the best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. McCain has become the essence of that listless best and striving worst, and the transformation is a lesson for us all about just how much selfdom must be sacrificed upon the altar of GOP politics to win an election. McCain has proven himself unfit to be president, and perhaps worse, he has shown us all how cheaply integrity dies when power is close at hand.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.

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