The Magazine

The Warrior and the Priest

The revealing campaign styles of John McCain and Barack Obama.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By FRED BARNES
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John McCain, restless and emotional, couldn't resist the temptation to join the battle to rescue our financial markets and save the economy. It was the biggest and most important fight around, bigger and more important than his campaign scrap with Barack Obama. Being engaged in the action--in the arena--is where McCain always wants to be. So he cast his presidential campaign aside, temporarily, and headed back to Washington. The campaign could wait. It might even benefit.

Obama, placid and professorial, had a different reaction to the fight over the bailout. Even before McCain's maneuver he'd rejected the idea of putting his campaign on hold and joining the legislative battle. He'd be available if needed. An abrupt change in plans, a sudden shift, is not his style. His campaign would go on. He returned to Washington reluctantly. If he hadn't, his campaign might have suffered.

The contrast here is not only dramatic. It's unusually revealing about the two candidates and how they might act as president. There's an analogy that captures the difference: the warrior and the priest. McCain the warrior, Obama the priest. (If "priest" seems confusing, substitute "professor.")

McCain has been a player in every major fight, in war and in Washington, for more than four decades. As far back as 1962, he waited in Florida as a Navy pilot for the order to attack during the Cuban missile crisis. (The order never came.) As a senator, he's never stayed on the sidelines. As a candidate, he likes the rough-and-tumble and unpredictable turns of town hall meetings.

Obama prefers set speeches delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, a reflection of his more aloof and less engaged approach to politics and policy. In Democratic primary debates, he tended to be passive. Where McCain is an activist, Obama is more a visionary. As a senator, he's involved himself only on the fringes of big issues.

Long before the McCain-Obama race, the warrior and the priest comparison was applied to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in a book by John Milton Cooper Jr., a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. The Warrior and the Priest was published in 1983 and was not widely acclaimed, but it's become a cult classic.

Cooper described Roosevelt, the warrior, as "exuberant and expansive," a man who "epitomized the enjoyment of power." He gained fame "through well-cultivated press coverage of his exploits as a reformer, rancher, hunter, police commissioner, war hero, and engaging personality." And TR was "associated conspicuously and consistently with one issue above all others--war." Sounds like McCain.

Wilson, the priest, was "disciplined and controlled," Cooper wrote. "He seemingly embodied a less joyful exercise of power." Until he ran for office, Wilson was "a spectator and a bystander." Roosevelt was a "tireless evangelist for international activism," but Wilson had "a more pacific vision." His entry into politics at the highest level was created by his reputation as "a widely regarded public speaker." Obama isn't Wilson personified, but he comes close.

The contrast in style between McCain and Obama is a significant dividing line in the campaign--and not just in last week's bailout battle. In electing a president, Americans choose a person, not a party leader. Personal traits--character, likeability, temperament, public style--matter.

Since Obama captured the Democratic nomination last June, he and McCain have taken strikingly different approaches as candidates. McCain challenged Obama to ten town hall debates over the summer. Obama declined, recognizing these unscripted events favored McCain's mercurial style of campaigning.

Then McCain, like a general changing his tactics on the fly, picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. This surprise move unnerved Obama and his campaign staff, and they spent several unproductive weeks taking potshots at Palin.

McCain likes surprises and gambles. When his campaign was at its low point in 2007, he rebuffed the advice of his senior advisers and went on what he called a "no surrender tour," defending the unpopular war in Iraq. His gamble paid off when the surge reduced violence and brought the war to the verge of victory today.

Obama, on the other hand, doesn't like quick changes or taking risks. His campaign, like the man himself, has been a picture of steadiness and careful planning. He played it safe by picking Joe Biden as his running mate. He took a chance--a small one--when he flatly rejected McCain's call to postpone their scheduled debate last week. He prevailed.