McCain obviously usurped Obama’s campaign theme of the need for change throughout much of his Convention acceptance speech. No longer was his superior experience in government emphasized as compared to that of Obama, but instead the need for new policies to clean up Washington by mavericks with the guts and integrity to make it happen. McCain even promised to take on lobbyists and entrenched interests despite the fact that as many as 150 lobbyists serve his campaign in one capacity or another. One wonders how he intends to do all of this. He freely admits his ignorance of economics, yet pledged in his speech to confront a principal task ahead in Washington — the reversal of economic policies beneficial to entrenched interests that negatively impact the economy as a whole. How and where does he expect to begin? Why does he want to hire his good friend Senator Phil Gramm of Texas as the Secretary of Treasury despite the fact that Gramm was the architect and principal author of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and other such legislation that led to the speculative bubble so ruinous to Wall Street for the past eighteen months?
But what was most bothersome about McCain’s speech was his chauvinistic rapport with the audience that incessantly chanted “USA USA USA” as if they were spectators at a victorious basketball game. This enthusiastic crowd participation rose to a crescendo as McCain culminated with the following words:
I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your president. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank him, that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on Earth. And hard work — with hard words, strong faith, and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people. Fight for our children’s future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all. Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America. Stand up, stand up, stand up, and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history. Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.
No matter that “blessed, bountiful America” is now in serious economic difficulty as much as anything because of the conduct of war against presumed enemies abroad. No matter that the adjacent sentences, “Nothing is inevitable here” and “We’re Americans and we never give up,” are utterly contradictory. How can anybody half-educated insist in the same breath the blatant paradox that nothing is inevitable, but that something is, e.g. Americans never giving up?
Contrast McCain’s belllicose extravagance with Obama’s final words at the end of his speech just days earlier:
America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done, not with so many children to educate and so many veterans to care for; not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save; not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. American, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.
As to be expected, both speeches become highly rhetorical at the end, but Obama’s final words offer a sense of shared hope as well as the admittedly tired metaphors of not turning back and not walking alone. In contrast, McCain’s final exhortation seems almost deranged in its incessant call for combative patriotism. Significantly, the word “fight” is used nine times before McCain shifts to “stand up,” which he uses five times, culminating with “stand up and fight.” This superimposition merges the images of troops standing in formation while going to battle. Perhaps a more suitable image would be of somebody knocked down who gets up to resume fighting. This would be suggestive of McCain’s early experience as an amateur prizefighter. He also assures his audience that America makes history and never quits, suggesting in this context the sustained pursuit of military conflict.
When spoken with great passion in front of a sympathetic audience fiercely chanting “USA USA USA,” McCain’s language produces an extraordinary effect, though with a different impact on different audiences. For enthusiasts swept up in the cause of a glorious Imperial America, it might seem truly inspirational, but for others who are primarily concerned about the maturity and good judgment needed in the White House, the martial rhetoric instead becomes frightening. I can imagine similar rhetorical excesses by Hitler addressing a huge crowd of Nazi enthusiasts back in 1933 or by Mussolini even earlier in Italy.
What intensifies this concern is McCain’s widespread reputation for his volcanic temper that clouds his judgment. He is also said to jump to conclusions and act impulsively without taking the situation into full consideration. He himself grants this shortcoming in his co-authored memoir, Worth the Fighting For, in which he acknowledges, “Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.” This simple admission might seem refreshingly confessional, but the President of the United States ought to avoid hasty decisions with consequences that might later be regretted.
Like Obama, McCain has not yet had any genuine executive experience for his entire career beyond his initial choice of a VP running mate a week ago, and he seems far less likely than Obama to succeed in the task of acquiring executive skills. An old dog confronted with new tricks, he won’t know what to do. Or, more appropriately, how does a dog that barks at the mailman deliver the mail. If it is McCain’s penchant to challenge authority, how does he expect to exert authority once in power.
Since his childhood McCain has preferred gut instinct to dispassionate inquiry, but this bias can be dangerous, especially with more complicated issues. McCain has also prided himself on his status as a maverick, but a genuine maverick challenges authority as compared to a seasoned president who exerts authority with both care and fair-mindedness. These are two entirely complementary tasks, and it seems questionable that McCain will be able to make the necessary transition from one to the other. How can a confirmed maverick in his mid-seventies suddenly do a 180-degree turn and become an effective administrator?
More specifically, how can McCain contain his impulsiveness. Throughout his entire career his “haste” has often crossed the line into outright recklessness, a dangerous trait especially for those obsessed with perceived enemies. He freely admits in his biographies having been a reckless driver and generally reckless in his behavior throughout his teens. Recklessness also seems to have been involved when he destroyed as many as four jet fighters during his active service in Vietnam. He was never quite at fault, but the accidents kept happening.
The worst incident was on the carrier Forrestal, when he somehow dropped one or both of the bombs attached to his fighter plane onto the deck of the carrier Forrestal after his fighter was struck by a rocket accidentally fired from another plane. Fuel from his plane poured out over the deck and caught fire, so McCain quickly left the cockpit and crawled the length of his fuselage, then dropped ten feet into flames and rolled away just before the bombs exploded. Miraculously, he escaped the resulting conflagration that engulfed most of the deck. However, 132 others were killed, and some of the survivors questioned just how and why McCain’s bombs had dropped onto the deck in the first place.
McCain would also seem to have been reckless when he identified himself to his North Vietnamese captors as the son of Admiral McCain, the commander-in- chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. McCain did this in order to receive medical attention for his broken leg before it would need to be amputated. However, according to some reports (see, for example, Douglas Valentine’s CounterPunch article, “Meet the Real John McCain”), he went on to provide a good deal more information than required and actually cooperated with his captors as much or more than any of the other prisoners.
McCain was also reckless when he finally returned home and almost immediately ditched his first wife Carol and their children for Cindy McCain, a wealthy young woman who paid for his divorce and all the legal expenses incurred in obtaining his new freedom. Cindy also provided the financial resources to launch him into a new career, this time in national politics. And he was reckless soon afterwards when he became involved in the Keating scandal that almost terminated his career before it even started.
McCain was reckless throughout his career in the Senate, especially during the current Bush administration, when, according to Frank Rich in his excellent NYT column, “Palin and McCain’s Shotgun Marriage,” he engaged in “cynical flip-flops” relevant to the most important issues. McCain savored his opposition to many of Bush’s policies at the very beginning of his term in office, but suddenly shifted to become one of Bush’s staunchest supporters. He later took pride in having gone along with at least 90% of Bush’s initiatives that reached the Senate floor. As mentioned by Rich, McCain repeatedly advocated the invasion of Iraq because Saddam Hussein had been involved in 9-11 (which was not true) and because he was developing WMD potentially harmful to the rest of the world (which was also not true). McCain also estimated that fewer than 100,000 troops would be needed to capture and occupy Iraq, then fell into revising his estimate, finally advocating this last year an occupation army big enough to obtain a “surge” that finally brought the war to its present level.
McCain was reckless when he spoke of occupying Iraq for another hundred years and of solving our problem with Iran with the bloodthirsty expedient, “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb.” Just a few weeks ago, he was reckless when he declared all his fellow citizens in the United States to be Georgians in the struggle against Russia that began when Georgia launched a surprise night attack on South Ossetia despite the presence of 9,000 Russian troops kept there by treaty as peacekeepers (see my Dissident Voice article, “How War Began in Georgia”). Unaware of the full complexity of the situation, McCain almost seems to have wanted to renew the Cold War against Russia. Not only would we sustain our misbegotten crusade against all Muslim enemies of the American dream but also restart the hostilities with Russia that kept our economy afloat for almost half a century.
As already indicated, McCain was particularly reckless last week with the very first executive decision in his administrative career, when he offered the vice presidential nomination to Sarah Palin, Alaska’s freshman governor, without having fully vetted her. As best can be determined, her vetting did not begin until a day before he met her preceding the Convention. Why such procrastination followed by such haste? It seems McCain had to make a quick substitution once he was warned off his first choice for VP, Senator Lieberman of Connecticut as demanded by his fundamentalist Republican base. So he risked the choice of Palin, once again illustrating his remarkable penchant for recklessness.
If McCain is elected, as remains an excellent possibility, Palin would be truly a heartbeat from the presidency for the next four years. In the event of his death while in office, as is quite possible given the life spans of both his father and paternal grandfather (who died respectively at the ages of 70 and 61), our nation would be led by an Alaskan hockey-mom (in her words, “a pit- bull wearing lipstick”) with little background in politics and no familiarity with economics, foreign relations, or the history of our nation. In obvious contrast, Obama’s choice of Senator Biden as his running mate was entirely appropriate. It was a tactical success, but it is also obvious that Obama could only profit from Biden’s experience in foreign offsetting his own deficiencies. In contrast, McCain’s choice of Palin was a desperate campaign tactic with few obvious benefits once he is elected to office. How many other such abrupt decisions can be expected of him once in the White House?
It turns out that Palin has pursued a career just as reckless and irresponsible in her own way as McCain’s. Once elected mayor of Wasilla, with a population of 5,000, she immediately fired a number of local officials, including the town’s finance director, city planner, and police chief, the latter because he “intimidated her,” as she explained to the press. She also tried to impose censorship on the local library, actually having sent a letter the head librarian threatening to fire her if she did not cooperate. As the mother of a teenage hockey player, Palin obtained at least $15 million in funding to build a sports complex with a hockey rink before the property rights to the land were secured, costing the town many extra thousands of dollars. The town had been free of debt when she became mayor but was $22 million in debt when she left office to become Governor of Alaska — hardly the legacy of a fiscal conservative.
As both mayor and governor, Palin worked with Senator Ted Stevens to obtain a large variety of congressional earmarks beneficial to her constituents, thus taking full advantage of Alaska’s unique role as our nation’s most insatiable welfare state. Fiercely dedicated to the sanctity of free enterprise, Palin nevertheless helped to promote Stevens’ “bridge to nowhere” as a federal project until it became obvious that Congress would refuse to subsidize it, whereupon she suddenly rejected it as an obvious boondoggle without returning to the federal government the $223 million already allocated. She proclaimed herself a fiscal reformer, but she could only do this because of her alacrity in having distanced herself once Senator Stevens began to take the heat on corruption charges.
No less problematic was Palin’s choice to serve as governor while keeping her residence as much as possible in Wasilla. She accordingly spent more than half of her first nineteenth months in office at home. The problem was that she took the opportunity to augment her salary with full travel expenses with the excuse that the time was spent away from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau. Perhaps her most outrageous act was in having fired Walt Monegan, Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner, because he refused to comply with her demand that he fire the Alaska state trooper, Mike Wooten, her former brother-in-law.
Many other examples of both public and personal recklessness can be attributed to Palin — so many, in fact, that it is inconceivable she could have been selected for the VP nomination were she properly vetted. In the simplest terms, then, a very reckless presidential candidate recklessly chose a very reckless neophyte as his running mate, and now the most powerful nation in the world stands an excellent chance of being ruled very recklessly by the two of them, perhaps in tandem sequence, first both of them arm in arm and then Palin alone.
Bush is widely considered to have been a bad president, by many accounts the worst in American history. As maintained by Bob Woodward in The War Within, (cited by Michiko Kakutani in the NYT), Bush’s failure can be attributed to his “impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions.” According to Woodward, “The result has too often been an impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that runs counter to his gut.” Today, McCain seems even more vulnerable to these limitations, of course favoring impatience, bravado, and carelessness at the expense of delayed reaction in his pursuit of an effective response. Like Bush during the 2000 election, McCain is fully able to “sweet talk” the American public with assurances of a “blessed, bountiful America.,” However, he seems even more likely to draw upon ill-founded “personal certainty” in the pursuit of dangerous and ill-conceived policies relevant to both our nation’s economy and foreign policy. And with potentially dreadful results. When everything explodes, McCain himself might be able to jump through fire and roll away unscathed, but others might be less fortunate, and still others would be needed to clean up the debris.