When I first heard about John McCain’s bizarre lollygag through a Baghdad bazaar – he was extolling peaceful progress while wearing a bulletproof vest, moving in a cocoon of 100 soldiers, and being protected on high by two gunships and three choppers – I suddenly flashed on the memory of Bowie Kuhn at the ’76 World Series.
Granted, this is an asymmetrical comparison, since the war is a tad more important than baseball. But, like McCain, the baseball commissioner at that time was determined to be blithely oblivious to his surroundings, and to the dictates of empirical reality. Kuhn had decreed that the World Series should be played at night, and so, in dark Arctic weather, he showed up at Yankee Stadium sans topcoat, wearing just a business suit. While everybody around him was shivering in multiple layers of cloth, he sought to behave as if it was balmy in the Bronx. (Cold? What cold?) In the end, however, his gesture backfired. The baseball writer Roger Angell famously wrote that Kuhn had succeeded only in making a fool of himself.
Until John McCain’s latest travails over Iraq, few would have said that about him. Like many veteran politicians, McCain has always had his detractors, people who see him as self-righteous, or bullheaded, or vain. But he was never an object of ridicule.
Now he is. His strenuous efforts to cleave himself to the sinking lame duck in the White House, and to the war that may well go down in history as America’s greatest strategic disaster, is making him a laughingstock among those in the electorate (particularly the crucial swing-voting independents) who understand the damage that President Bush’s war has wrought on our global struggle against terrorism. The image of McCain, traipsing through the Baghdad market in his shades (rose-colored, no doubt), in an effort to demonstrate his radio assertion that “there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk,” not only threatens to delegitimize his presidential candidacy, but also could prove as notorious as the spectacle of Bush bestriding the aircraft carrier in his flight suit.
One week later, after finishing third in the GOP first-quarter money sweepstakes, and in the wake of polling news that Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are beating or crowding him in key early primary states, McCain is still trying to live down what he did in Iraq. Now he has an Iraq speech slated for this Wednesday at the Virginia Military Institute – it smells of a campaign “relaunch,” never a good sign – in which he will try to explain yet again why he is hewing to the Bush stance that has been rejected by a landslide majority of Americans. He wrote an op-ed piece on Iraq in yesterday’s Washington Post. And he tried out a few lines last night, on the Sunday broadcast of CBS’ 60 Minutes (“I disagree with what the majority of the American people want.”)
But he succeeded merely in looking foolish again. At one point, CBS asked him to explain why he had said, in late March, that the current U.S. commander in Iraq “goes out almost every day in an unarmed Humvee,” when, in fact, that was an outright falsehood. (McCain had apparently been trying to cite some evidence about “progress” during the Surge.) In response last night, McCain said this:
“There is no unarmored Humvees. Obviously, that’s the case. I’m trying to make the point over and over and over again that we are making progress, that there are signs of progress…Of course I’m going to misspeak, and I’ve done it on numerous occasions, and I probably will in the future. I regret that when I divert attention to something I said from my message, but, you know, that’s just life, and I’m happy frankly with the way I operate. Otherwise, it’d be a lot less fun.”
That response demonstrates just how far McCain has traveled from the halcyon days of Straight Talk. He is now suggesting that it’s fine to make false assertions in the service of promoting “over and over and over again” the theme of “progress” in Iraq – and that misspeaking in support of Bush’s war policy is “just life.” Even at a time when soldiers are dying every day (actually, at an increased pace since the onset of the Surge), and at a time when most Americans are hungry for honesty on the war, McCain is saying that speaking more carefully, and backing up his assertions with fact, would be “less fun.”
One can make the argument that McCain’s dogged declarations of “progress” are smart short-term politics, given the fact that the likeliest GOP primary voters are still staunch defenders of the Iraq war. Yet he has been losing ground anyway, in key early states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, and nationwide as well. His political dilemma is two-fold: A lot of conservatives still don’t trust him, despite his best ongoing efforts to mimic Bush’s flight from factual reality on Iraq; and, in terms of a general election, the swing-voting (and heavily antiwar) independents who loved him as a “maverick” in 2000 appear poised to reject him if he does win the ’08 nomination.
He and his advisers undoubtedly believe that he can’t win the GOP nod unless he parades his bona fides as a born-again “loyal Bushie” (in the pet phrase of ex-Justice aide Kyle Sampson). But his timing is unfortunate. Here he is promoting the Bush agenda in Iraq, even in a nightmare Baghdad photo op - at a time when Bush is being repeatedly rebuked on the war by agencies of his own government and by conservative think tanks as well.
Last week, for instance, a declassified Defense Department report again certified that (contrary to Bush’s claims) Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had not been conspiring together prior to the war. Also, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Heritage Foundation all contradicted Bush’s rhetorical claim that Iraq terrorists would “follow us home” if they were not defeated over there. And the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently concluded that Iraq (exacerbated by inept Pentagon planning) is straining the National Guard so severely that its capability to protect us on the home front has been significantly eroded.
But as McCain struggles to recoup this week, it’s doubtful that he will be able to match Senate colleague Lindsey Graham for sheer exuberance. As Graham cruised the Baghdad marketplace with McCain, the South Carolinian was overcome by the incipient signs of freedom-loving capitalism; in his words, “I bought five rugs for five bucks!” It’s amazing, the bargains that can be had, when a buyer is backed at taxpayer’s expense by the full weight of the American military.