Bush Ought to Remember His Fair-Weather Friends

Finally, something to like about John McCain. He told the reporters on Straight Talk Express that his jailers in North Vietnam were “gooks.” He said they tormented him and killed his friends; they deserve whatever ugly epithet lies at hand; he wouldn’t use the term on anyone who was not a Communist P.O.W.- torturer; and he refused to apologize. If we could get him imprisoned by trial lawyers or journalists, something might yet be made of him.

After South Carolina, the McCain phenomenon is probably headed for eclipse. But, like Osiris, he will rise again in some other incarnation. Mr. McCain is this cycle’s avatar of the Patriot King. The Patriot King was created by America’s forgotten founding father, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a perennial British office-seeker of the early 18th century. Bolingbroke put his chips on a patriotic sovereign who would enter politics from the outside, rebuking and reforming a corrupt establishment (and, incidentally, hiring him). No Patriot King ever gave Bolingbroke a leg up, but this dream of his caught on across the Atlantic, and ever after, in times of stress or boredom, he walks our minds once again. Every general in the White House, or seeking it, has been clothed with his robes, as well as some of the civilian freelancers. George Wallace, John Anderson, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan were regional, ideological, racial or sectarian figures. But Ross Perot, in his first run, was a crotchety version of the type. Colin Powell, during his brief 1995 non-run, hit the note like a concert A.

Senator McCain is both crotchety and pure. He swipes at lobbyists and Al Gore, he calls hellions by their right name, he admits that between marriages he behaved without controlling biblical authority. Alongside the knobs and gnarls is his record of suffering and service, and his constant talk, as inspiring as it is content-free, of upholding the general interest. His immediate foil is George W. Bush, surrounded by Magi bearing political gifts but still in his swaddling clothes. His other foil is the man he seeks to replace, William Jefferson Clinton: lifelong pol, parser of the verb “to be,” denier of his ideals as well as his lusts: canting, calculating, cowardly. Who better to purge this dank and detumescent national memory than a battle-scarred blowhard?

Senator McCain’s persona worked wonders in the Republican primaries so long as George W. did not fight back. Now that Governor Bush has begun to fight, a chunk of McCainism collapses. So W. got into Andover and Yale as an alumni son, floated free of one sinking business deal after another on the kindness of rich family friends, and rode his father’s name to a $70 million war chest. American voters have always warmed to the glow of family and class. Some years ago, Edward Pessen, a Marxist historian, wrote a book, The Log Cabin Myth , calculating that only six Presidents had been born lower-middle class or poor. (His list: Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Nota bene : Not one of them represented the party of the common man.) Family connections are another figure in the carpet of electoral success. The Congressman from the 11th District of New Jersey is Rodney Freylinghausen. The first Freylinghausen entered Congress in 1778.

The relevant question is, what use does the golden child make of his opportunities? Many a scoring runner was born on third base. But how many of those born on third failed to make it home? George W. was showered with advantages. But the voters of Texas had to elect him, and re-elect him, Governor. (His father was never so favored, having lost two runs for Senate.) When the McCain challenge boiled up like a saucepan on a cooktop, Mr. Bush had to handle the situation himself. Now that he has begun to, the argument from callowness-one of the chief ones in Mr. McCain’s repertoire-shrivels.

Republican primary voters may be learning something about Governor Bush. He should also be learning something about fair-weather friends. The Governor started his run for the White House with a bland campaign, ingratiating to the political center and to the press. He blurred the edges of his conservativism; he attached a qualifier, “compassionate,” that loomed over the original structure like a portico slapped onto a ranch house; he would sell the package with a grin and a high-five.

It worked for a time. But then, deep in the Hall of the Mountain King, the trolls went to work. There was a rash of stories about executions of the innocent. Chance? Or related to Texas’ record of frying atrocious murderers? The grin was rechristened a smirk. Finally, when John McCain appeared, the press ran to him like water in a gutter. His war record was recited, like Roland’s; his witticisms were repeated, like Oscar Wilde’s. You would have thought Sidney Blumenthal had been giving a seminar in sycophancy. The press could not wait to crown Mr. McCain as the Republican nominee and to label Mr. Bush as a clueless, daddy’s-boy oaf.

Nicholas Lemann, in a recent issue of The New Yorker , wrote about the last time in Mr. Bush’s life such a thing happened. It was during his days as a D.K.E. at 1960’s Yale, when the power structure changed from a WASP-ocracy to a meritocracy, and the old entitled haunts were suddenly comfortless. A key moment, in Mr. Bush’s memory, came after his father lost his first Senate race, to liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, an establishment scion who had joined the left, ran across young W. and told him his father had been beaten by a better man. Mr. Coffin does not remember saying this. W. does.

Let him remember, then, how, when he was floundering, his ex-friends in the press threw him barbells and engine blocks. If he does, the Bush years, if they come, will hold fewer surprises for him. Bush Ought to Remember His Fair-Weather Friends