CHARACTER IS DESTINY
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.
McCain's book is built around the lives of 34 people whose stories exemplify 34 virtues. Many of the virtues are obvious: honesty, courage, loyalty, responsibility, faith, tolerance, generosity and humility. Some are less obvious choices for a book of this sort: humor, curiosity, resilience, enthusiasm and authenticity.
That McCain really wants to run for president again is clear from his careful selection of heroes. He won't get into any trouble for the politicians he picks: Winston Churchill (for diligence), George Washington (for self-control), Abraham Lincoln (for resilience), Nelson Mandela (for forgiveness), Dwight D. Eisenhower (for humility) and Theodore Roosevelt (for enthusiasm).
He also won't be trashed for leaving out women or people of color. Their ranks include Mahatma Gandhi (for respect); Joan of Arc (for authenticity); Sojourner Truth (for idealism); Queen Elizabeth I (for confidence); Mother Antonia, the Beverly Hills debutante who became a nun working in a tough Mexican prison (for mercy); Oseola McCarty, who gave the $150,000 that she saved from a lifetime of doing others' laundry to the University of Southern Mississippi (for generosity); Martin Luther King Jr. (for fairness); the great Native American leader Tecumseh (for gratitude); the Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph (for excellence), and Mother Teresa (for selflessness and contentment). This is a book that works for boys and girls of many backgrounds. And as a political matter, it works across ideological, racial and ethnic divides -- though a political consultant might have told McCain to include more Latinos.
And for a guy who got into a lot of fights with the religious right during his 2000 presidential campaign, there is ample praise of religious figures -- John Winthrop, of "a city upon a hill" fame, makes an appearance on behalf of "hopefulness" -- and repeated references to McCain's own beliefs. His chapter on faith tells the story of a prison guard at the Vietnamese POW camp where McCain was held, who was a secret Christian. One Christmas morning, the guard, whose name McCain never even knew, came close to him and "very casually . . . used his foot to draw a cross in the dirt . . . . I forgot about the war, and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on a Christmas morning."
But those of McCain's supporters who are altogether secular will not be disappointed. He includes Charles Darwin -- a gutsy pick these days -- as a hero for representing curiosity and defends evolutionary theory against its critics. "The only undeniable challenge the theory of evolution poses to Christian beliefs is its obvious contradiction of the idea that God created the world as it is in less than a week," McCain writes. "But our faith is certainly not so weak that it can be shaken to learn that a biblical metaphor is not literal history. Nature doesn't threaten our faith." You'd like to hope this view would help him more than it hurts him in the 2008 GOP primaries.
McCain's volume might be seen as William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues with attitude -- the maverick as moralist. His unlikely heroes also serve to make some of his most interesting points. He praises Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher who went after "true believers." (Hoffer is here on behalf of "industry.") McCain admirably includes Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who headed the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda -- and tried and failed to get the rest of the world to pay attention to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. Dallaire stands here for "righteousness." It's good that McCain uses his chapter on "courtesy" to praise Aung San Suu Kyi, the extraordinary Burmese human rights hero, and to go after Burma's dictators.
Still, you get a sense at the end of these stories that, for all his talk about love and for all his belief in the human capacity for transcendence, McCain does not have a rosy view of life. Over and over, he refers to the fears, anxieties and darker impulses in his heroes. He notes that Lincoln was "a melancholy man" who suffered from "chronic depression." In Churchill's case, McCain points to "the recurring bouts of serious depression he suffered all of his life, and which he could only chase away with ceaseless activity." In writing about Edith Cavell, the World War I nurse heroine executed by the Germans for harboring Allied troops and getting them to safety, McCain speaks about her father's lack of "warmth and humor" and the reputation she developed for "aloofness and severity."
McCain's openly expressed understanding of life's harsher side -- he repeatedly praises Lincoln for "ruthlessly prosecuting" the Civil War -- makes him an atypical politician. We Americans (and I'm no exception) tend to prefer sunny optimists. But this uncompromising realism may also be the primary source of McCain's appeal.
His chapter on dignity highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor who played an important part in McCain's earlier book on his survival in the POW camps. After World War II, Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning, which seems to provide the underpinning of much of what McCain believes. Frankl insisted that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
That is the central theme of this book. And if it turns out to be the theme of McCain's political career -- if his conscience really does have the capacity to be stung -- he will be remembered in a volume like this some day, whether he becomes president or not. *
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of "Stand Up Fight Back" and "Why Americans Hate Politics."