Sunday, August 10, 2008

Rethinking John McCain

When a man is as loose with his words as this YouTube video seems to show, my immediate response is to stagger backward in disgust. Whatever else I write in this post, a degree of that disgust will always remain. But yesterday I came upon a revealing article by Adam Nagourney that shows some of the forces at work--and out of control--in McCain's campaign and in his own personality. Something about the article opened me up to a smidgeon of sympathy for McCain. As I read about his style of leadership and how his military experience influences his decision making process, I realized that it had more than a little in common with my short teaching experience.

“Soldiers are taught to expect the unexpected and accept it, and revise, improvise, and fight their way through any adversity," McCain says. Nagourney points out that "Mr. McCain’s style contains contradictions, veering between a shoot-from-the-hip tendency and assertions of damn-the-consequences authenticity on the one hand and a grudging acceptance on the other of the need to give in to the discipline of programmed politics."

It would be too convenient to blame all of McCain's contradictory gaffes on disorganized campaign strategy; but it would be too naive to overstate them as evidence of McCain's dishonesty or callousness in matters of truth.

What is more likely the case is that McCain's worst quality is a certain recklessness of the mouth. I have been known in the past to make statements with confidence that in my own mind were merely plausible. This is bad. But it would be a far worse sin were it not for the fact that McCain's thoughts are just as fluid and changing as his words--including when his words are flat-out wrong. The virtue in all of this--and yes, this whole post is an exercise in seeing a virtue inside of a flaw--is that McCain is exceedingly (perhaps excessively, by his campaign's reckoning) open to changing his course based on new inputs, and to do so quickly. To quote Nagourney again: "Mr. McCain hungers for information." Again, a chord of sympathy within me is struck.

Now none of this excuses McCain from flatly denying things that he himself said, even in the face of damning evidence. I have seen high school students do the same thing, and it is a repulsive dimension of human nature to try to contort reality to what suits me in this moment. But I am a little more open-minded about the McCain campaign as a whole. Opponents are cynical about the phrase, "Straight talk express." But as a theologian, I am open to the possibility that McCain, not wholly unlike God, writes straight with crooked lines.

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