Even John McCain seemed surprised by his resurrection in Michigan. He already had begun saying, repeatedly, "I am proud of the campaign we ran," precisely the kind of thing you say when you are about to lose and withdraw.
On Tuesday night, however, McCain was joining the chorus of those saying, with a touch of wonder, that there is "something out there" keeping him aloft.
What is it?
Yes, the McCain phenomenon is anti-Clintonism in action, with McCain the most anti-Clinton of all the candidates. Yes, the McCain phenomenon is a Republican reclaiming the Perot voters of 1992--a not insignificant 19 percent of the electorate. These are not Reagan Democrats (who were working-class ethnics) but more suburban, more educated, more libertarian independents and Democrats who are inclined to vote for reform (and might have drifted back to the Reform Party were it not run by a bunch of nuts). But there is something deeper going on, something that explains the resilience of a campaign as fly-by-night, ad hoc and often disoriented as McCain's.
It begins with his autobiography, without a doubt the most important campaign book in recent American history. It is striking how many people bring the book for McCain to sign at rallies. It has become a totem. And that is because no one who has read it can be unmoved by his courage.
It is, interestingly, a peculiar kind of courage, a kind that fits perfectly with America's still conflicted feelings about Vietnam. McCain's military heroism is not the heroism of a warrior. He is no Eisenhower liberating Europe. He routed no enemy. He conquered no territory. Nor did he did commit the momentary act of insane self-sacrifice in the chaos and terror of battle, as did, for example, fellow Sen. Bob Kerrey, who saved his platoon in a firefight after losing part of a leg.
McCain's is not the heroism of conquest or even rescue, but of endurance, and, even more important, endurance for principle. It is not just that he suffered for five and a half years in Hanoi. It is that he chose to suffer by refusing the early release the North Vietnamese offered him and insisted--with torture--he accept. He refused because that would have violated the military code of conduct under which one does not accept early release until those who have been captured earlier have been released.
Twenty-five years ago, it was impossible to imagine what a Vietnam War hero would look like. Rambo was a guns-ablazing World War II hero grafted onto Vietnam, a context so improbable as to make him a parody. How to be a hero in a war that so many believed was immoral and wrong? McCain has given us the answer. Even those who deeply opposed the war and who still remain ambivalent about it can only be moved and feel ennobled by war service that consists of suffering and self-denial.
He suffered for our sins. He did not die for them, though he came very close. At a subliminal level, this suffering has become in the public imagination a kind of expiation for the war itself. It explains why even people so ideologically distant from him find his experience so moving and his appeal so powerful. That war experience sets him apart from other politicians, others of his generation, and other contenders for the presidency--most starkly from George W. Bush.
It is not that one flew combat over North Vietnam while the other was a member of the Texas Air National Guard. It is that the early release that McCain refused--the essence of his heroism--was offered to him by virtue of his parentage.
A few days after capturing him, the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was an admiral, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. Releasing the son of a famous and important American officer would have been a propaganda coup for them. McCain denied them that. He then endured years of torture for renouncing the privileges of his pedigree.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, has gained nothing but advantage from his pedigree. At every turn--favor, friends, funding. This is no criticism of Bush. It is what anyone in his position would do. It is perfectly natural for a son to take advantage of whatever associations nature and chance endowed him with.
It is just singularly unfortunate for him that his opponent in his quest for the Republican nomination is a man who, offered precisely the same paternal advantage, did what so few men would do: He turned it down. Fiercely.