In National Journal, Linda Douglass offers us a glimpse into a phase of McCain’s career I hadn’t previously known about. In the late 70s, he was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, and it turns out to have been one of the most formative experiences of McCain’s already action-packed life.
In a job that might have ended up merely as William Bader, then staff director for the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described it—“a glorified concierge and bag carrier, and soother of senatorial egos and demands”—McCain used his keen powers of observation and his charismatic personality to learn a great deal about the Senate, foreign policy, and the world.
McCain was already forty at the time, having lost a good many years (although they were certainly formative too, in a different way) to his residence at the Hanoi Hilton and his subsequent recovery. He seems to have wanted to make up for lost time:
During his first year home, he was given a coveted spot at the National War College and immersed himself in the study of Vietnam and the policies that led the U.S. to fight and then pull out. Barely three years later, from his vantage point as the Navy/Marine Corps Senate liaison, he watched policy being made. By all accounts, he was riveted.
McCain irrepressible sense of fun and personal magnetism became legendary in the Senate. One can recognize the man who still loves to schmooze with reporters on the bus in Douglass’s description of the guy who couldn’t get enough of people and talk after his solitary years as prisoner.
But McCain was more than just a fun guy to be around. He was so popular that many Senators requested that he accompany them on their myriad policy trips abroad, and he therefore gained a remarkable amount of valuable experience on those visits with foreign leaders that Obama thinks are so useless compared to Obama’s childhood residence in Indonesia.
It’s extremely telling that one of the senators whom McCain most respected was Scoop Jackson, the famous “maverick” (sound familiar?) Democrat who represented the now-moribund (except for that dubiously aligned Democrat, Joe Lieberman) but once-strong hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. McCain especially admired both Jackson’s ability to be a profile in courage by going his own way no matter what the Party said, as well as the particular stance he took, which was to support the war in Vietnam and oppose the pullout his own party was advocating.
What comes across with great intensity are three things: McCain’s charismatic personality and zest for life and learning as a young man, his respect for senators who held to principles despite prevailing winds of unpopularity attempting to blow them down, and how early and powerfully the Vietnam experience and the desire that its ignominy not be repeated became a driving force in his life.
And so it occurs to me that it’s not at all surprising that the last two came together recently, as McCain demonstrated (1) his ability to buck the tide a la Scoop, steadfastly advocating the surge back when most Democrats and a great many Republicans were ready to give up on Iraq; and (b) his powerful desire to do his best to prevent a tragic repeat of what I’ve called the “second act” of Vietnam.
All candidates for President are driven at least in part by personal ambition; they must be, in order to want the job at all. But that’s not the only factor. And it seems to me that, if power is a good deal of what drives Hillary Clinton and misplaced hubris is what appears to motivate Obama, then this is the goal that fuels McCain: the knowledge that an Iraq pullout would be a bad thing, and that he just might happen to be the person in political life with the most knowledge and experience to understand what the stakes are and what the mistakes were—and to have the guts to do what he concludes is right without checking the polls for direction.