The Magazine

'Clean Hands and a Pure Heart'

The stature of John McCain.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Americans have traditionally rated their statesmen's moral stature above all other accomplishments. "The truth is," says a foreigner to a Frenchman in Stendhal's classic of 1830 Le Rouge et le Noir, "that your aged society values conventionality above everything; you will never rise higher than martial gallantry; vous aurez des Murat et jamais de Washington." You will have Murats, but never a Washington. Murat was the brilliant, swaggering commander who eagerly accepted Napoleon's offer of the crown of Naples. Napoleon himself was the soldier of genius and enlightened thinker who crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Paris. But George Washington was outraged at the suggestion that his victorious army should make him king. He chose instead to play a central role in the creation of modern democracy. American society has always been unconventional in its search for men of Washington's mold, who care less for power and glory than for freedom, democracy, and doing right.

John McCain's campaign has often been criticized for lacking a theme. It's a fair complaint as far as it goes, but overlooks one important fact: McCain's theme is himself. More than any candidate in recent decades, perhaps more than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower, McCain asks to be judged not as a talking white paper but as a man. Of course no candidate can advertise his own moral stature; he can use weak words like "maverick" and "I have been tested," but can't quite say "I stand before you as a hero of proven nobility." On the all-important question of moral stature, McCain's friends must speak for him. They have tried, but have come up short.

Before the debate season opened, Obama's own people spoke of the "stature gap" between the candidates and their plans for closing it. But a person's moral stature can't be altered by campaign slogans or debate performances; it is a measure of his life as a whole. Come the election you can smudge the facts but not change them. "The character issue" is a trivializing phrase that is often used to cut this great towering maple of a topic down to petunia-size. But two facts stand out and help explain why moral stature is so important to American voters.

First, we elect a head of state to speak and act for the nation, not a mere plug-and-play prime minister to run the government. Second, the most important events of modern American history have been largely unforeseen--9/11 and the financial crisis; the rise of Solidarity in Poland, Khomeini in Iran, John Paul II in the Vatican; Russian missiles in Cuba, the Berlin wall, the Communist invasion of South Korea, Pearl Harbor. The nation needs a man it can rely on, not position papers it approves; when crises arise, the position papers are likely to be irrelevant.

Granting the importance of the topic, the difference in moral stature between presidential candidates has rarely been as enormous as it is today--not (or not only) because Obama's is so small but because McCain's is so large. There is no single English word for McCain the hero, the moral entity. But in Hebrew he would be called a tsaddik--a man of such nobility and moral substance that he approaches holiness. If this assertion sounds crazy, that only shows how little we have thought about the issue.

To be a tsaddik says nothing about your politics. One of the central fallacies of Obama-style left-liberalism is the belief that political attitudinizing is a replacement for personal virtue. If the left believed in beatitude or salvation, you would get there by sending money to the correct campaigns, casting the correct votes, hating the right people, and reading the New York Times, religiously.

So what makes McCain a tsaddik? Compare his life with Natan Sharansky's. Sharansky, the Russian Jew who spent 10 years as a political prisoner, is today one of Israel's leading statesmen and political thinkers. And he is a tsaddik beyond question, honored by the whole civilized world. His story is linked to America as well as Russia and Israel: President Reagan's unqualified denunciations of the Soviet Union inspired and sustained Sharansky and his fellow political prisoners, and Sharansky called Reagan "the key figure in our struggle, the struggle of all people fighting against tyranny."

The resemblances between McCain and Sharansky are obvious. Sharansky, who helped found the Moscow Helsinki Watch group in 1976, made a rule in prison of defying Soviet and KGB authority in every way he could--although the consequence could only be crueler treatment in Gulag hell. John McCain volunteered to serve his country as a naval flier, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and imprisoned until 1973. He was badly wounded when he was brought down and captured, and has never fully recovered. He was in constant pain, losing strength and approaching death when North Vietnam offered him immediate release in 1968, on account of his father's high command in the U.S. military. His release out of turn, as a favored son of the military elite, would have been a propaganda triumph for Hanoi. So McCain refused. Then the serious torture began.

Two prisoners of brutal Communist regimes who chose to suffer for their principles and for love of country. Easily said but not easily grasped. Both men went on to become "maverick" politicians in the nations they loved. Who wins? Sharansky's was the more sustained and world-changing act of heroism. But comparisons at this level are meaningless. In moral stature they are both in a class that few men even aspire to, much less achieve. Both are great hearts, and tsaddikim.

McCain has continued to live the life of a stubborn tsaddik, personally and politically. In 1993 the McCains adopted a child from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh and proceeded not to talk about it. McCain is only a part-time conservative and has never inspired enthusiasm on the right; but no one doubts that each of his leftward excursions has been a matter of principle and not convenience. His outspoken, unwavering support for Israel in the face of American Jewish indifference is a perfect example of principled versus self-interested politics. His positions on soft money and campaign financing, and the stiff conflict-of-interest rules that have excluded so many experienced political operatives from his campaign staff, have hurt him badly--but not defeated him. He is not easily defeated.

Obama's campaign, on the other hand, shows symptoms of the left's unwillingness to deal seriously with moral problems. Obama often seems to confuse America's moral stature with its popularity. He talks about restoring America to the world's esteem--but who needs the world's esteem? Why is today's "global community" (or Western community) qualified to pass judgment on America? Obama won't say. He consistently ignores the moral significance of the blood and energy we have spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, not only to fight terrorism, not at all to install comfortable pro-American autocracies, but to help third-world peoples create democracy. And can anyone, left or right, imagine McCain listening to a sermon viciously slandering his country (or slandering anything he loved and honored) and quietly keeping his seat?

"Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart" (Psalm 24:3-4). Whether you like or dislike his politics, that is John McCain all over. If he wins this election, it will be a come-from-behind surprise. But in larger American terms, it will be no surprise at all.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, a professor of computer science at Yale, and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.