Courage at a Cost
Why McCain Deserves Conservatives' Respect

By Michael Gerson
Friday, June 22, 2007

On occasion, Sen. John McCain seems like a martyr anxious for the stake, offering his own lighter to get the proceedings started. His flamboyant heresies on campaign finance reform, global warming and immigration have left conservatives suspicious that he has a mild form of Chuck Hagel's disease: an uncontrollable moral exhibitionism designed to please the liberal media.

To these ideological concerns, conservatives quietly add the "temperament issue." McCain's coiled intensity is prone to sudden release. Even his strongest supporters must feel the same thrill as camping on the side of an active volcano.

Being avuncular is not a constitutional requirement to be president, as Andrew Jackson demonstrated by fighting 103 duels that left two bullets lodged in his body. But Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan created an expectation of presidential geniality. McCain, in contrast, is all sharp, jutting angles -- a work of cubism in a nation that favors watercolors.

Ultimately, however, judgment matters more than temperament in a president. And stepping back a moment from the past few years, McCain's judgment on the big issues deserves grudging respect from conservatives.

McCain has been right about the conduct of the Iraq war. During the senator's first trip to Iraq in August of 2003, a British colonel in Basra warned him that the start of a major insurgency was weeks away. American military leaders, McCain realized, were putting in place a modified Westmoreland strategy -- a war of attrition against the enemy while training friendly forces -- that he had seen before in Vietnam and seen fail. So he spent several months as a voice in the wilderness, calling for more troops and a more aggressive counterinsurgency strategy. Not since Churchill's wilderness years has a leader been more relentlessly vindicated by events, which culminated in the replacement of the leadership of the Pentagon and the adoption of McCain's approach.

McCain has been right on the issue of torture. Every responsible member of Congress recognizes the need for interrogation techniques for terrorists beyond asking name, rank and serial number. But McCain has argued that extreme techniques such as waterboarding should not be the American norm. He embraces an American exceptionalism: that we distinguish ourselves from our enemies by how we treat our enemies. And his argument has a unique power because of his own story. The victims of torture in North Vietnamese camps sustained their sanity, in part, by knowing they would never do the same to their torturers. McCain's concern on this issue has never been primarily its effect on public diplomacy. But there is no question that an early, public, decisive act of self-limitation would have helped to clarify the American cause in the world.

And McCain has been right -- heroically and suicidally right -- on the issue of immigration. Not all of the swift Republican current against immigration reform results from nativism -- there are understandable concerns among conservatives about extreme multiculturalism, the strains of illegal immigration on public services, and the numerous flaws of a complicated bill. But McCain has a mature appreciation of the paradox of immigration reform: A tighter border requires a more regular and orderly way for honest laborers to cross it. Controlling that border becomes difficult without a temporary worker system that allows us to distinguish drug dealers from lettuce pickers and hotel maids.

McCain is taking a political beating on Iraq in New Hampshire and on immigration just about everywhere else. His prospects have fallen with the rise of Fred Thompson. The McCain campaign admits it has lost 10 to 15 points in the last three weeks.

One McCain aide notes, with a kind of proud exasperation, that "we have unique challenges, because he is who he is." But beneath all the angles and edges shines a kind of nobility that seems unique in the current presidential race. McCain's speech on immigration earlier this month in Coral Gables, Fla., marked a significant moment in the campaign. After recounting the arguments for reform, he mentioned Maria Hernandez Perez, nearly 2, with "thick brown hair and eyes the color of chocolate," and Kelia Velazquez-Gonzalez, 16, who "carried a Bible in her backpack." Both died terrible deaths in the Arizona desert.

For McCain, they were not "illegals," they were human beings, with names. "We can't let immigrants break our laws with impunity," he said. "But these people are also God's children who wanted simply to be Americans."

This is not moral exhibitionism; it is just morality. And my respect for McCain, it turns out, is less and less grudging.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company