Time for Integrity

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In the early 1960s, Johnny Carson hosted an afternoon TV show called "Who Do You Trust?" The title was grammatically incorrect, but I will use it anyway to pose a question regarding the current fuss over the Geneva Conventions: When it comes to George Bush and John McCain, who -- or whom -- do you trust?

This is about as dumb a question as the Groucho Marx standard from "You Bet Your Life," yet another old TV show: Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? The contest, after all, is between a president who has repeatedly broken faith with the American people over the war in Iraq -- everything from weapons of mass destruction to disingenuous assurances that torture has not been used in the interrogation of suspects -- and a former Vietnam War prisoner who was tortured by his jailers because, among other things, he refused an offer of early release. There is nothing in George Bush's life that even approaches what McCain has done.

Of course, McCain does not stand alone against Bush. He was joined on the Senate Armed Services Committee by three other Republicans: Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins and, importantly, the chairman, John W. Warner. They were in turn joined by the Democrats, who, for once, have wisely stepped out of the way to allow the Republicans to duke it out among themselves. But it is McCain who gets the lion's share of attention, and it was McCain who elicited that letter from Colin Powell saying, among other things, that under Bush's proposals to amend the Geneva Conventions, the world would "doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." The lion had finally roared.

In New Hampshire, the state's largest newspaper, the reactionary Union Leader, opened up on McCain for opposing the president. But McCain has carried New Hampshire before, over the protestations of the Union Leader, and could do so again. Still, the all-but-declared presidential candidate -- McCain now has a staff about as big as FEMA's -- has plenty of opposition within his own party. Between his temper and his iconoclastic positions -- campaign finance, for instance -- he has made loads of enemies.

For the moment, the spotlight is on McCain and Bush -- a delightful GOP squabble. But it is the Democrats who ought to be paying close attention. For while the Democrats are awash in potential presidential candidates, they have nobody who even remotely approaches McCain's stature. I say this not because I agree with McCain across the board -- not on abortion, for sure, and not on Iraq, and not with his bellicose statements regarding North Korea -- but because he embodies a quality for which the country yearns: integrity. He is a man of his word.

The conventional wisdom is that the Senate is the graveyard of presidential ambitions. In recent times only John F. Kennedy has gone directly from there to the White House, while countless others have gone grimly back to Capitol Hill, John Kerry being just the latest example. McCain, though, has so far figured out how to leverage his Senate seat without falling prey to the sort of institutional problems that have bedeviled others -- a clotted verbosity, for instance. McCain somehow still speaks English.

The prime issue facing this country is not the war in Iraq. It is the people's loss of faith in their own government. In that, Iraq has played an important part but so, too, have campaign spending and fiscal idiocy of the sort represented by Sen. Ted Stevens's notorious "bridge to nowhere." Those of us who have been with McCain when he speaks of restoring faith in government know the effect on his audience. The man and his message are one and the same.

To restore trust, many Democrats and independents might be willing to overlook disagreements with McCain on issues of lesser importance -- including, maybe, even his rah-rah support for the war in Iraq (after all, how different is he from Hillary Clinton in this regard?) and his disquieting move to make nice with his former enemies on the religious right. But if that is to be the case, McCain must remain true to the principles he has enunciated in his disagreement with Bush over the Geneva Conventions and similar matters. Compromise is not a dirty word, but abandonment of principle is a different matter entirely.

The United States cannot conduct itself as its enemies have. We do not torture. We do not have kangaroo courts. We are John McCain, not his North Vietnamese jailers. As he did back in the Hanoi Hilton, this is McCain's moment to once again make that clear.

cohenr@washpost.com


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