I thought I was so sophisticated that I would never fall for a candidate just because his image on the TV screen pleased me. I thought I would never confuse issues with aura, matter with presentation. But then I found myself willing John McCain to triumph over George W. Bush. Willing is a euphemism for what was going on in my gut. I was rooting, but rooting is a word for teenage football fans or pigs looking for truffles. I wasn’t rooting-I was pulling on the universe with all my psychic might: “Make him win! Let him win!”
“Win, you big galumph, now!” I called out to my totally deaf television. I have never in my life voted for a Republican in a national election, except for that embarrassing time I voted for Richard Nixon because I was so angry at Hubert Humphrey for not vigorously protesting the Vietnam War. (I know it was a stupid vote, I just couldn’t do otherwise at the time. It wasn’t really a vote for Nixon, although I realize that the electronic machine counted it that way. I was striking a blow against opportunism, betrayal of principle, that sort of thing.) I only report it here so that my cards are on the table: That my heart is on my sleeve is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.
So what is it about Mr. McCain, whose career is founded after all on his distinguished service and years of suffering in that very same Vietnam where I would never have gone, if gone I would have retreated, if retreated I would have declared a victory for mankind, and if I was tempted to put my thumb in anyone’s eye, it would have been my own?
I heard Gov. John Engler, Engy to the Bush family, looking for all the world like the master of a Dickensian orphanage or a manager of the poor house who is himself eating the meager portions of his unfortunate charges. He said that Democrats like me were just making mischief in the Republican primary. We weren’t true Republicans, we weren’t party loyalists, we were invaders from across the river whose intentions were rape and pillage and who had no business meddling in his already settled affairs. I heard the sniffling and the pouting of Mr. Bush, who claimed a real Republican victory if you only counted Republicans. Actually, aside from the spin, there is something to be said for this. My love of Mr. McCain makes me a faux Republican, a sham Republican, a no-good Republican whose family values are no more trustworthy than the latest Internet offering and, what’s more, I am probably just that kind of Republican-come-lately that might not put my faith in God’s hands, at least not unless I’m in a foxhole with very cold feet. And even worse: I am a McCain supporter who just might, push come to shove, vote for Al Gore.
Nevertheless, I think this affection of mine, passing or not, has a rhyme and a reason. Mr. McCain is who he is. His smile is his smile. I’d bet my life on it. He has been a true war hero even if I didn’t like the war, he was a man of honor who was brave and steadfast, no milquetoast, no Yalie who got in on his father’s apron strings and then ignored the suffering of the ones burning up far away. Mr. McCain thought he was fighting for the right side, and sometimes it’s the thought that counts.
His conservative views seem genuine, not arranged for the sake of convenience. He is against big government. He is for self-reliance, for campaign reform, and while he’s also for a lot of things that seem strange to me, like cutting down trees, or automatic weapons, I find myself thirsty for an honorable man, in need of a man who is what he says he is.
I know I don’t want a social conservative, meaning a Dixiecrat with pious hand-wringing, waving the Confederate flag at me and selecting the Supreme Court justices who will serve for the next 50 years. But I also don’t want any more spin doctors operating on my aorta. I don’t want flip-floppers and those who won’t break bread with the Log Cabin Republicans and those who have all sorts of good ideas about how to tinker with education but will never change anything, will never really dare to do something different. I don’t want tobacco-tainted yes men or liquor-lobby lackeys. I don’t want military types who will sneak behind my back and feed the contras and play golf at the best courses in America. I want Abe Lincoln, and I want a man who can look Yasir Arafat and Hafez al-Assad in the eye and say, “Cut that out or else,” and I don’t want ever more policy papers that don’t do more than repeat platitudes, and I am not so much interested in where the tax excess goes because I know it will never go to poor children without health insurance no matter who wins what election.
I want a President who believes in our pluralism and doesn’t need to say so at every opportunity so that we can really believe in his good intentions toward those of us who may be of different race or religion or region or gender. I want a President who knows what a level playing field is-Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore inherited a very tilted one (of course, so did Franklin Roosevelt). But Mr. Bush is no Roosevelt: He smirks, he sneers, he says what his handlers have told him to say, but nevertheless we see the frat boy behind the podium, he’s not our friend, not in good times or bad.
I know there are issues that matter-gun control, abortion-that would make Mr. Gore the more likely man to win my vote in the end, but meanwhile I am flirting with party desertion because everything seems so hokey, so staged, so fake, so full of words signifying nothing that I am moving toward the one man in this campaign who seems to be outside the hooey. “Seems” is as far as I’ll go.
The sanctimonious Trent Lott, the slimy Henry Hyde, the menagerie up on the hill-see you later, alligator. In the end there is a wisdom in “We the people” that is not about personal malfunctions or family connections but runs as clear as our rivers should through the marrow of our communal bones. Bush is fakely compassionate-anyone who believes that he weeps for you would buy the Triborough in a nanosecond. Gore is Naomi Wolf in drag. McCain, on the other hand, might lose his temper. Good-maybe what this country needs is a man who really yells when he is mad.