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."