After the first debate, some of his supporters suggested that Barack Obama is too gentlemanly, too restrained and respectful, to make sharp criticisms of his older adversary. It’s an interesting assertion.
If true, it would certainly explain why on at least a half dozen occasions Obama acknowledged John McCain’s perspicacity, using the phrase “absolutely right” to describe his opponent’s positions on earmarks, corporate taxes, and military affairs, but — again — his defenders say this is because Obama is courteous to a fault. Besides, they say, the Oxford debate was focused on foreign policy (not his strong suit), and all Obama had to do was have a gaffe-free evening, which he did.
Others saw a clear win for McCain. Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote that, “[McCain] condescendingly called Obama ‘naive’ at a couple of points in the debate, like an old master lecturing a young understudy.” Still, the polls continue to favor Obama, and with a month and a couple of debates to go, we’re well into the game’s fourth quarter, so to speak. The Democrats may be justified in dropping back into a prevent defense and using the Obama war chest to fund an attack-ad offense. They may be right, although John McCain has a way of staging comebacks.
And while I don’t intend to downplay demographics or scoff at polling or undervalue charisma, I think there’s an immeasurable factor in presidential races that often — although not always — allows one candidate to rally; a dynamic that everybody seems to overlook until after the upset. Character.
Character isn’t a mysterious thing, even if some people confuse it with a vivid personality. Obama has loads of personality, and he projects it as a kind of flickering newsreel onto the screen of American frustration. His anodyne message (“Change”) seems to be working at the 51 percent level, because so many of our fellow citizens feel stressed about the future. But surely we don’t need change so much as we need leadership. It seemed a nifty GOP tactic to use the Minneapolis convention to cast the McCain-Palin ticket as the real instrument of change, but it is McCain’s credibility as a leader that will turn the tide. If the tide turns.
A complete man, a man of character — a gentleman — is somebody whose life is defined by courage, compassion, courtesy, and honor. As a McCain partisan, it’s tempting for me simply to write that he clearly has demonstrated those qualities and Barack Obama has not. Indeed, the main problem with this presidential race is the very novelty of the Democrat — that we haven’t seen him in action, except as a campaigner — and cannot know (not anyway if we seek facts to support assertions) if the man is a complete man or half a man or less.
My good friend, Wick Allison, a Catholic, a conservative, the former publisher of National Review and current owner of D Magazine (the guide to everything that matters in Dallas), recently endorsed Obama. He considers Obama a “realist,” by which he means: “The crucial distinction in my mind is that, unlike John McCain, I am convinced [Obama] will not impulsively take us into another war unless American national interests are directly threatened.” I worry that Wick is mistaking timidity for prudence, personality for character. What courage has Sen. Obama ever shown? Audacity isn’t courage. What compassion, other than his willingness to make tax rates more steeply progressive? What courtesy besides a wariness born of his desire to succeed? A true gentleman’s manners come from the restraint that arises from self-sacrifice, self-discipline, and self-respect.
And what of honor? This is a quality difficult to measure in any man — especially from a distance. Indeed, I can think of few men in public life other than John McCain about whom one may say with confidence that he is honorable, principled. McCain has been tested and has triumphed, not just successfully elected. He was not first, and is not principally, a politician. As New York Times columnist David Brooks described McCain on the eve of the New Hampshire primary: “If you cover him for a day, you’d better bring 2,500 questions because in the hours he spends with journalists, you will run through all of them. Last Saturday, we talked about Pervez Musharraf’s asceticism and Ted Williams’s hitting philosophy, the Korean War and Hispanic voting patterns.”
The great Stoic, Epictetus, described the ideal man as able to keep his virtue under any circumstances: “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”
I’m sure it’s pure speculation on my part, but on Wednesday November 5th the loser in this race, disappointed though he will surely be, will be miserable if he is Obama but happy if he is McCain.