The Maverick as Moralist

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Reviewed by E.J. Dionne Jr.
Sunday, December 11, 2005


Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember

By John McCain with Mark Salter

Random House. 311 pp. $23.95

It is hard to imagine any other politician writing this book: a series of morality tales pitched at America's youth, built around an eclectic collection of heroes who embody a not entirely predictable set of virtues. But John McCain is not just any politician.

In fact, you can make the case that the greatest success of the Republican senator from Arizona has not been as a politician but as a creator of his own public personality -- as an existential hero and the author of inspirational books. Having previously penned Faith of My Fathers, Worth the Fighting For and Why Courage Matters , he has now created this surprisingly interesting collection with his longtime aide Mark Salter (who is generously acknowledged by McCain as his effective co-author and literary muse). This book is intended to inspire kids, but it will be of great interest to adults, including those trying to figure out how McCain might fare in the 2008 presidential election.

Those who have listened to and read McCain over the years -- yes, I have long been part of that special-interest group that is correctly identified as his principal political base: journalists -- eventually catch on to his moral style. It begins with self-deprecation. (In the introduction, McCain cites his mother's view that "fools' names and fools' faces are often seen in public places.") It then moves to a realistic and not particularly optimistic view of human nature. But it finally arrives at a heroic sense of human possibility. Everything depends on the capacity of human beings to will themselves to transcend their egos.

It's quite a trick for a politician who spends so much time drawing attention to himself to make this case, but McCain keeps pulling it off. He does so in part because his biography as a Vietnam War prisoner-of-war serves as his best character witness. Mostly, though, he makes it work by sharing his own anxieties. No politician has been more successful at selling himself by underselling himself.

"The most important thing I have learned, from my parents, from teachers, from my faith, from many good people I have been blessed to know, and from the lives of people whose stories we have included in this book," he writes, "is to want what they had, integrity, and to feel the sting of my conscience when I have risked it for some selfish reason."

The skeptic in me cries out at this sentence. McCain holds himself to the very highest standard, which ought to make him highly vulnerable to every charge of hypocrisy and phony high-mindedness you can think of. But notice that final clause. McCain knows perfectly well that he is far from perfect. He confesses that he, like everyone else, can be selfish. And then -- the clincher -- he lets you know that he struggles with such flaws because he has a conscience, one appliance many citizens figure that the run-of-the-mill politician never bothered to acquire. As a way of winning friends and influencing people, this is sheer genius.

The question is whether McCain is playing a game with us or whether the whole rap is real. What tilts me McCain's way -- though not without reasonable doubts -- is that he seems to have a well-developed view of human nature. You might see him as a classic believer in original sin who also believes in transcendence and deliverance. That's why the McCain of this book made me think about my theological hero, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote as powerfully as anyone in the 20th century about sin and salvation.

In summarizing for his readers the lessons they might take from these tales "for the important choices in your own life," McCain offers this view of the human condition: "We are born with one nature. We want what we want, and we want it now. But as we grow, we develop our second nature, our character. These stories are about that second nature." Call me corny, but I wouldn't mind if my kids learned to see life this way.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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