McCain the Manichaean?

Democratic criticisms of John McCain are so partisan, so unmeasured, and so hysterical that they can hardly be taken seriously, having the unintended consequence of making me like him more. But George Will is a conservative columnist, and he has raised the most trenchant questions of all against John McCain. Referring to his pledge to fire Chris Cox, head of the Securities and Exchange commission who apparently had little to do with the current economic meltdown but with whom McCain has had a long grudge, Will says that McCain has a “Manicheaean worldview.” This refers to the heretics who insisted that the universe is a battleground between a good god and a bad god:

McCain’s smear — that Cox “betrayed the public’s trust” — is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are “corrupt” or “betray the public’s trust,” two categories that seem to be exhaustive — there are no other people. McCain’s Manichaean worldview drove him to his signature legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaigning. Today, his campaign is creatively finding interstices in laws intended to restrict campaign giving and spending. (For details, see The Post of Sept. 17; and the New York Times of Sept. 19.) . . . .

Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

Should such accusations about McCain’s temperament give us pause? Is this just a negative take (“boiling moralism”) on principled behavior? At what point does laudable moral zeal become heretical Manichaeanism?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • kerner

    This is not the first time George Will has blasted McCain, and I think a major source of Will’s antipathy to McCain is that they are fundamentally different personalities. Will is the classic intellectual. Everything he says is as principled, well thought out, logical, and (let’s face it) pedantic as he can make it. I can argue that he even intellectualizes his love for baseball (although he appears to be a Cubs fan, so that’s pretty hard to do).

    McCain is the classic military man: a man of action who tends to see things in terms of allies and enemies, tactics and objectives. Who and what will win the day is more important to McCain than anything. As a former fighter pilot, he tends to want to make decisions quickly (in a jet fighter, long ponderous deliberation is suicide).

    Also, in the military, it is not unusual to relieve a subordinate who has failed to observe and warn of or prevent a disaster. If we (at least we conservatives) agree that the current crisis has its roots in decisions made during the Clinton administration, and that the problems have been compounding all this time, should not the person in charge of regulating all this be held accountable for 1) not seeing it coming, 2) not warning the president of the danger, and 3) not proposing a means of preventing it? In the military, if someone were caught as flat footed as Cox apparently has been, his superiors would at least consider relieving him.

    George Will is a good writer and a principled conservative (whom I agree with most of the time), but as far as I know, he has never been in charge of a large organization. What does he know about when a department head should or should not be fired?

    But I agree with Will about one thing. The United States is not a jet fighter. It’s more like a fleet of aircraft carriers. Turning it around will take more careful thought and planning than McCain may be tempermentally disposed to give it, and he will have to work to overcome his temperment as president.

  • Paul

    My number one reservation about McCain is his apparent impulsiveness and brash demeanor. He reminds me more of General Patton than General Eisenhauer – someone you want leading you into battle, but not someone you necessarily want sending you into battle. Consequently, I would have preferred a different candidate be nominated by the Right.

    As to the question of a lack of experience vs. a lack of temperment, I finally come down to a conclusion with this rhetorical question: Is it less dangerous to have a leader who over reacts to the situation at hand or a leader that doesn’t see what the situation at hand is?

    For a little levity, I am reminded of a poster I once saw on a US Army Company Commander’s office wall:

    “Which way did they go? How many of them were there? I must find them! I am their leader!”

    The Company Commander was trying to impress upon his Lieutenants that there is some basic information that they must always have: Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing? Where are they going?” Not a bad lesson for some parish pastors to consider concerning the sheep which have been entrusted to his care.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I nominate kerner to write for the Post.
    That was cogent. That’s what I like about argument from a conservative point of view.
    See how come kerner managed to be as thoughtful as Will, and to broadly consider, and come to a different conclusion? Or at least to a different possibility?
    Ah! Conservative debate! So civil. So lucid.

  • allen

    OK, I’ll throw the stink-bomb out there if Mr. Will insists upon merely waving it around.

    How does one spend five and a half years in a North Vietnamese POW camp and not acquire Traumatic Stress Syndrome? Inflicting it was the very goal of the North Vietnamese POW camp system. It doesn’t go away by itself – it only get another adjective tacked on the front after the victim returns to “normal” society.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Not a stink bomb, but a low blow.

  • Peter Leavitt

    McCain made a serious mistake calling to fire Cox, as he has done with McCain Feingold and global warming. He did, however, make a marvelous outside the box decision in picking Sarah Palin. In this case he had the virtue of his vice of being overly passionate and thinking too outside the box. Saying that a McCain presidency would be operatic is itself rather operatic. Most of the time McCain is cooly analytic on issues.

    The question is do we prefer McCain or Obama. Personally, I would have preferred Romney or Thompson, though I at this point have no problem chosing McCain.

    With Obama we would almost certainly get at least two liberal Supreme Court justices and probably a continued orgy of government spending along with a soft-power national security policy that will make Carter look like a tough-minded statesman.

  • allen

    Susan aka organshoes,

    It would be a low blow if he were running for the Senate.

  • The Jones

    Ooh. That’s the best anti-McCain argument I’ve seen in a long time. I guess my only defense is that McCain DOES have a temper, but it has more often than not worked toward his benefit than his demise. When people can use their emotions for their benefit instead of being carried around by them, which Greenstein in “The Presidential Difference” calls Emotional Intelligence, that’s a virtue. People may easily say that McCain’s anger is no virtue, but he has more endorsements from the Senate (the group of people to whom his anger most often flows) than any other candidate in ether primary, and he has several major legislative achievements to act as trophies for the resourcefulness he has in his anger.

    As for the Cox firing, I’ll yield to Kerner.

  • allen

    Not suffering fools gladly is almost essential for any executive. Even the ones who don’t control nuclear weapons. It was five and one half years of captivity and torture by professional torturers. McCain deserves a lot of credit for coming out with his sanity intact. His moral fiber is outstanding. But that is not to say that all is well.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    A smaller stink bomb, but stinky nonetheless.
    allen: the word in title of this post is ‘Manichean’. Not ‘Manchurian’.

  • allen

    I never saw the movie nor read the book. PTSD is for real.

  • J

    “For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are “corrupt” or “betray the public’s trust,” two categories that seem to be exhaustive — there are no other people.”

    To me, the most chilling comment Will made about McCain is set forth above. Will is not just calling McCain hot-headed and impulsive, but also a hypocrite (e.g., campaign finance laws and loopholes), and a highly self-centered man who cannot stand to be disagreed with.

  • Paul

    PTSD is indeed real, but not everyone in a traumatic, stressful situation acquires the disorder. Even those who have can recover as with other disorders and victims of violence and evil. Don’t tell me that we would eliminate everyone who has ever been raped, gone to war, suffered a prolonged illness or any other stressful, traumatic situation is automatically disqualified for the office. Would you disqualify a soldier who survived the first assault at Normandy, the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, or the adult who suffered a childhood in the home of an alcoholic, battering, molesting parent? Certainly our experiences go into the make up of our character; but as for me, I would be more likely to trust a survivor than someone who has been untried. And anyone can “snap” – as much the one who has never had to handle trauma or stress as the one who has handled it and survived. Not only so, but we have had more than 30 years to see the character of this man since his trauma. I think it’s a “stink bomb” because of the stench of the one who would launch it. If it had any basis in science, medicine, or reality it would have been put forward long, long ago.

  • Paul

    By the way, I agree that veteran Senator and Navel Aviator John McCain is brash and less than ‘winsome.’ I would prefer a candidate more measured and gracious; but I have known many such people who I would trust implicitly while I have also known many ‘nice’ people that make my skin crawl. My experience. My view.

  • Anon

    McCain was not in my top four picks among those running for the Grand Old Party ticket.

    But the alternative, well, both sides say that this is the most important election in 100 years. Why do they say that? What is at stake? Liberty versus State totalism, life versus death, Lewis’ “Tao” versus unrestrained blasphemy and abomination forced upon all on pain of law.

    This, if they aren’t hyperventilating (both Democrats and Republicans) makes it seem necessary to vote for McCain Palin, too much is at stake to be perfectionists or pietists at this point.

  • allen

    It is true that everyone in a traumatic, stressful situation does not acquire PTSD. But McCain suffered traumatic stress of the most severe type every single day for 5 and a half years straight. That’s a long time. One would have to assume he had acquired it. If he “got rid of” it somehow, there are a lot of people who would like to be let in on the method.

  • Paul

    Allen, if what you were saying were true I would expect experts to have already descended upon that issue. They haven’t. It’s a non-issue except for those who are desperate to sow doubt. Not even the raving left of Hollywood or SNL have suggested such absurdities to the best of my knowledge.

  • Paul

    One would most certainly NOT have to “assume he acquired it” any more than one should “assume” that those in certain demographic groups would be infected with HIV/AIDS.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    If he’d demonstrated in his long career somehow that he has something other than a temper, and even that hasn’t proven to be total liability, then I’d think maybe you were contributing a real cautionary note here, allen.
    As it is, I think you’ve got one note to sing, and you’ve sung it already.
    Are you licensed to practice psychobabble anywhere but on blogs?

  • allen

    There is the Prevention of Loss From Psychiatric Disorders report of the Surgeon General -

    http://warchronicle.com/nonbatttlecasualties/us_wwii/prevention.htm

    A service man could be expected to become a psychiatric casualty after 240 regimental combat days. What is a regimental combat day compared to a day with the North Vietnamese torturers? What is 8 months compared to 5 and a half years?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Allen (@20), I’m reminded of people who look for backmasking in songs as evidence of unchristian content, all the while seemingly missing the obvious non-backwards unchristian content therein.

    There’s plenty to object to in McCain that we can concretely point to without making baseless claims of PTSS. Of what value are your assumptions and guesswork? What evidence do you have beyond the fact that he was a soldier and a POW?

  • allen

    Assumptions?

    Are there really people who assume that they themselves could endure what McCain did and not suffer from Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or that they could if they had enough good moral fiber? Do they assume that it just goes away by itself after a while? Or that it doesn’t matter if the President has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

  • Paul

    84% of WWII prisoners of war held by the Japanese (Bataan Death March, etc.) where found to have suffered from symptoms of PTSD. 59% still had the disorder more than a half century later. (http://books.google.com/books?id=88Axi0huzYwC&pg=PA278&lpg=PA278&dq=prevalence+ptsd+pow+vietnam&source=web&ots=T2GbV9Qqc9&sig=y7vqWtTMBYTfO5KgJps–3ehATQ&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=10&ct=result#PPA280,M1) That’s affirmed and accepted scientific/medical research.

    While those numbers are certainly high (and are used to predict POWs housed at the “Hanoi Hilton”) they also demonstrate that 16% never showed signs of PTSD and that 41% showed no more symptoms of the disorder 50 years later.

    Yes, you are making baseless assumptions.

  • Bill

    Allen, whether McCain has PTSD is beyond my ken, but he has indeed shown for years in AZ (where I live) the kind of bullying pettiness that Geo. Will has now described for all to read.
    But the problem with your posts is that your “baseless assumptions” are not about Obama. Were they so, you’d have a hundred fans on this blog; your conclusions – no matter how foolish and fact free – would be hailed by your current critics as masterful insights. We Christians may say we love the truth, but we love the Republican party much more.

  • allen

    America is going to have to jettison some prejudices against what used to be called battle-fatigue, or shell-shock. It makes a man unfit for duty. Unless we institute national service, the result will be manifested on the battlefield. Men are not robots. The only people I hear talking about it are the ones saying that Bush broke the army. We’re not going to stop having wars regardless of who gets elected. How’s that for a masterful insight.

  • Don S

    Allen, based on your post @ 20, I assume that you would automatically disqualify from the presidency any veteran who had served more than 240 regimental combat days? If not, then where would you draw the line for automatically, without evidence, excluding a candidate from office based on combat/POW experience?

  • Bill

    Don S @26, your assumption is foolish. Allen made no such comment.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Very close to it, Bill.
    Pretty appalling and now more than stink bomb. At this point, it’s a flame-throw, and it says volumes about allen, even to partisans.
    allen behaves like a passive-aggressive troll. He’s not been debating at all, but remains engaged in mongering of some sort. Fear- and slime-mongering come to mind.
    Yuck. Pardon me while I wipe my feet.
    I’d steer clear of defending him if I were you.

  • Bill

    Miss aka Organshoes, your comments are reprehensible. You describe Allen in psychological terms, e.g, passive/aggressive, even as you condemn him for using “psychobabble” @19 to describe not you, but a public figure (albeit a Republican) who arguably cannot easily control his temper.
    Many people wonder about the psychological effects of McCain’s POW treatment. He himself has blamed it for his decision to divorce his first wife. From what I read, however, it sounds like McCain (known as McNasty in high school) was 50 years ago what Will says he is now.
    tODD @21 rightly asked Allen for evidence. So far, Allen’s not provided anything beyond speculation that McCain’s POW treatment must have adversely affected his psyche. That’s not evidence, particularly since there are biographies of McCain available that likely could provide more insight. Has Allen consulted them?
    I don’t defend Allen’s speculations, but I also don’t defend the phony partisan “outrage” to which he has been subjected here.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Nothing phony about it, Bill.
    If you can’t defend his speculations, you’re in good company.

  • allen

    I don’t know how one could ascertain the effect of PTSD on McCain. I assume it would correlate with the severity and duration of the original stress.

    Don S#26, you asked how I would automatically, without evidence, exclude a candidate from office based on combat/POW experience. I wouldn’t. I would want evidence to include him. I would want the candidate to address the issue fully.

    Because if the President ever gets into an elevator, the guy who carries the nuclear football has to get into it too in case the elevator gets stuck between floors and the President has to order a nuclear strike.

  • Don S

    Bill @ 29: Where do you find “outrage”? It is Allen and you who are doing the labeling, which is a symptom of outrage. Allen is labeling McCain as too damaged to be President, without evidence, which you rightly acknowledge. You, at 26, labeled my comment as “foolish”, even though the comment was straightforward and merely tried to probe Allen’s position, since he himself stated “A service man could be expected to become a psychiatric casualty after 240 regimental combat days”. My inquiry was reasonable, not foolish, and it is odd to me that you felt led to speak up on Allen’s behalf by pejoratively dismissing my question.

  • Don S

    Allen @ 31: Our comments obviously crossed. Thank you for answering my original question. Now, another for you. If I am understanding you correctly, what you are saying is that a service man/woman having 240 or more regimental combat days of experience has an affirmative duty, should he/she decide in later life to run for the office of President, to prove that he/she is not a “psychiatric casualty”. Is that a fair representation of your position?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Allen, you said (@31), and I quote, “I don’t know” and “I assume”. I believe that is an accurate summary of your thesis.

  • allen

    Don S@ 33: No, it is not a fair representation of my position. I’m saying that that is what I would do if I were in McCain’s position because everybody would, or should, be wondering about it, but not daring to ask, for obvious reasons.

  • Anon

    Does anyone remember how many nuclear wars Eisenhower started as President? I can’t remember any of them. . .

    I don’t know that the “football” is taken with the Pres all the time anymore, the Wall came down, CW I is over, I don’t think we’ve operated that way for quite some time. But it makes good theatre.

  • Don S

    Allen @ 35: All I can say is keep your day job. I don’t think there is much market for campaign managers who advise their client politicians to start the campaign conversation by volunteering that, “oh, by the way, I’m not nuts!”. :)

    We’ve had a number of combat-hardened veterans who have served as president since we had the “nuclear football”. I guess you would have recommended, as well, that Eisenhower, JFK, Jimmy Carter (nuclear submarine officer — double nuts!), and George Bush 41 (WWII naval aviator, shot down in combat) declare and prove, right away, that they weren’t psychiatric casualties.

  • allen

    Eisenhower never saw one day of combat in his entire career.

  • allen

    The “football” accompanied Clinton into elevators.

  • allen

    I don’t know if any statistics have ever been compiled on the incidence of traumatic stress in naval or air combat.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    I’m no longer amazed by what you don’t know, allen, nor by how easily you prove it.
    The amount of times you’ve proven it, though, and on the same subject, is pretty amazing.
    Kudos.


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