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The Curious Mind of John McCain

John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure.
John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)

"I didn't decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president. . . . In truth, I'd had the ambition for a long time."

That ambition led McCain into a moral lapse that appalled him. It involved an ongoing dispute in South Carolina over the tradition of flying the Confederate battle flag atop the state capitol, in Columbia. In a television interview, McCain said the flag was "offensive," and he appeared sympathetic to its critics. His aides were alarmed, fearing the consequences in the upcoming South Carolina primary, and they wrote a damage-control statement that McCain read repeatedly before television cameras. "I understand both sides," McCain said. "Some view the flag as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."

But that, McCain wrote a year later, was "a lie." The flag symbolized both slavery and the South's secession from "the country I love," and "should be lowered forever from the staff atop South Carolina's capitol."

"I had promised to tell the truth no matter what," McCain wrote in the book. "When I broke it, I had not just been dishonest, I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable."

'McCain Is All Emotion'

McCain's harsh self-criticism suggests the emotionalism that colleagues and friends say is typical of him. This was described recently by Gary Hart, the former senator from Colorado and a presidential candidate himself in 1984 and 1988. Hart befriended McCain in the late 1970s, when McCain was the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate. "He's a guy's guy, fun to be with," Hart said. When McCain married Cindy Lou Hensley in 1980 (his second marriage), Hart was a groomsman.

"I think his mind is visceral," Hart said, "driven less by thought and more by feelings. This doesn't mean he's totally reactive or without logic or thought processes; it just means he's a fighter pilot. He reacts to circumstances."

A senior official in the Clinton administration who worked with McCain on Bosnia and Kosovo, where McCain defied most of his Republican colleagues to support strong U.S. action against Serbia, agreed. "In the many, many years that I've been in Washington," this former official said, insisting on anonymity to avoid upsetting McCain, "John McCain is far and away the most emotional politician I have ever met."

"McCain is all emotion," the former official continued. "People don't understand that, so they keep talking about his temperament, his temper. He reacts emotionally, therefore unpredictably."

McCain can be impatient with complicated answers to questions he considers straightforward, with gray when he sees black and white. For example, he sees no gray outcome possible in Iraq: "In war," he has said, "there is no such thing as compromise; you either win or you lose." But he has not defined victory in Iraq, and many wars have ended ambiguously.

McCain's commentary on Iraq often echoes his descriptions of the Vietnam War. He can make both sound like classical military confrontations and rarely mentions their political complexities. Asked about this in the interview, McCain said the North Vietnamese won with a tank-led invasion of South Vietnam at a time when President Richard Nixon, hobbled by the Watergate scandal, could not respond by using American air power. "We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal," McCain has said, implying that the war could have been won -- again without defining victory.

Is it possible that in both Vietnam and Iraq, "victory" was and is beyond the reach of the United States, because in both cases only locals -- Vietnamese and Iraqis -- could ensure a satisfactory outcome to the conflict by finding a political resolution? McCain is impatient with this argument. In recent days, he has all but declared victory in Iraq: "This conflict has succeeded," he said in the interview. "All I can say is they [the Iraqis] are establishing the rule of law, they're going to be having elections, and I think they're becoming an effective government, which is what our strategy was, thanks to the genius of a guy named David Petraeus."

McCain has repeatedly lambasted Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for failing to understand the Iraq war. McCain was asked about Obama's warnings in 2002 that a war against Iraq was a bad idea that would require a U.S. "occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Wasn't Obama more prescient than McCain, who gave repeated prewar assurances such as "the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators" and "we will win it easily"? McCain replied: "I think that's a legitimate question."

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