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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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.