When John McCain announced for president a week ago, the comparisons with Texas Gov. George W. Bush were inevitable--starting with the ones McCain made himself.
The Arizona senator and former Vietnam POW "implicitly drew a contrast between their life experiences," wrote The Post's David Broder, "saying his ordeal in a Hanoi prison taught him 'both the blessing and the price of freedom' and gave him the confidence to make his own judgments on issues of war and peace." McCain added, "I don't begin this mission with any sense of entitlement," leaving us to guess who does.
At the time of his announcement, I was reading McCain's bestseller, "Faith of My Fathers," and I couldn't help drawing a few contrasts myself.
What struck me first were the parallels between the two men. Start with the fact that--for all McCain's talk of reaching beyond elites--both men followed into their professions eminent fathers who had followed eminent fathers before them. George W. succeeds a president and a senator; McCain, two four-star admirals.
Both men were youthful high-livers. Both racked up dismal academic records--in schools their fathers attended. Both, as students, were critical of their schools--Bush at Yale, McCain at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Given the similarities, the differences in tone as the two look back on their lives is remarkable. McCain sounds like a thoughtful adult, Bush like an indulged and sometimes peevish kid. Consider this from a recent Post story, noting Bush's criticisms of Andover and Yale and his aversion to anyone he found pretentious. "A mediocre student himself, Bush still rolls his eyes when he hears the name Strobe Talbott--an academic and student leader in his 1968 Yale class and now deputy secretary of state. In part out of anger that Yale was slow to honor his father . . . George W. has never gone back for a reunion."
Opposing elitism is one thing; Bush's railings sound unnervingly like garden-variety anti-intellectualism. McCain, by contrast, looks back at his college years with respect for those who did well and with a wistfulness that he didn't. In prison, he writes, "I regretted I hadn't read more books so I could keep my mind better occupied in solitary. I regretted much of the foolishness that had characterized my youth, seeing in it, at last, its obvious insignificance. I regretted I hadn't worked harder at the Academy."
Bush also publicly looks back at lessons learned. But his talk of having been "young and irresponsible when I was young and irresponsible," hardly seems shot through with regret--not to mention how his carrying on with the heavy boozing till 40 undermines the youth defense.
We've been subjected to so much shifty recasting of the past from candidates. Consider Clinton, who "never broke the laws of his country," which morphed into "I didn't inhale." Or George W.'s assertion that he hadn't used cocaine--within X number of years, then within Y, leaving us waiting for Z.
McCain deals forthrightly with his fling with "Marie, the Flame of Florida" as a young Navy pilot in Pensacola, and his drunken arrival on a girlfriend's family's doorstep. Bush speaks of mistakes he "may or may not have made," but from which he's happy to draw lessons for the young.
In McCain, we have at last a candidate who believes that character grows over a lifetime instead of being applied for the political season like makeup for television.
His candor--his New Hampshire campaign bus is called the "Straight Talk Express"--draws adoring press: The McCain Swoon, it's called. His independence makes him willing to buck his own party on Big Tobacco and campaign finance. He also has a less appealing orneriness ("a morale booster for me," he writes) that leads him to tell excruciatingly inappropriate jokes and to be startlingly snappish. ("You're misinformed," one radio caller told McCain. "No, YOU are misinformed," he retorted.)
Our search, of course, is not for Mr. Personality. As National Review put it, "The nomination race . . . is not a contest for best man. It is one for best politician. And W., who appears to relish the rough-and-tumble of politics and to be a disciplined campaigner, has a formidable claim to being that."
Perhaps. But McCain's ability to look back with humor and honesty over his life contrasts so refreshingly with Bush's tendency to see that all slights are numbered and accounted for, all grievances nursed, that we may at least hope ardently that McCain's effect on the campaign will be powerful.
We've surely had a perpetual adolescent in the White House long enough.