Thursday, October 9, 2008

McCain's Temperament is Uncertain

I shared an elevator ride once with John McCain.

We were on the South side of the Capitol, off the Senate floor. In between us was a gorgeous young Senate aide, no more than 30 years old with a statuesque figure and hair down to her shoulders. (Joe Klein in Primary Colors had a memorable if demeaning name for such young women – muffins.) After stepping in to the elevator at the last moment, McCain shot a quick look in the woman’s direction, flashed a half smile, and said hello to her briefly. He did not acknowledge me. I got the impression that, like me, he would have liked to have done more than give her a tributary glance and salutation. Before exiting, he kept his head down at a 45 degree angle, his jaw clenched slightly.

That was eight or nine years ago. As any political observer will tell you, McCain’s temperament continues to be an issue. During the debate Tuesday night, Barack Obama raised it in response to McCain’s charge that Obama’s inexperience on foreign affairs would be dangerous, noting that McCain had sang "bomb, bomb, Iran" and threatned North Korea with extinction. This week, Obama’s campaign has run television ads describing McCain’s political leadership as “erratic.”

Are Obama’s attacks on McCain’s character fair? To answer the question, it helps to define what I mean by temperament. I am using the Catechism’s definition of the term:

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: "Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart."72 Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: "Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites."73 In the New Testament it is called "moderation" or "sobriety." We ought "to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world."74

By his own admission, McCain has fallen short of this standard. According to The Washington Post, he received a marriage license with his current wife, Cindy, four weeks before his divorce from his first wife was final. According to his 2002 autobiography Worth The Fighting For, McCain blamed his marriage’s demise not on his time in Vietnam but rather his “immaturity and selfishness.”As late as the 1990s, McCain was legendary on Capitol Hill for screaming at any political figures, including senators, who disrespected him. For this latter reason, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi told a Boston Globe reporter that “the thought of a McCain presidency sends a cold chill down my spine.”

My impression, perhaps biased, is that McCain recognizes his intemperance and has sought to discipline it. He called his divorce from his first wife “the greatest moral failing of my life.” If the Post is to be believed, he has made amends with at least some of those whom he cursed out. He has passed major laws, such as campaign finance reform and the tobacco settlement, by working with liberal Democrats.

Yet McCain’s mastery over his instincts and desires is uncertain at times. At one point Tuesday night, McCain famously referred to Obama not as a senate colleague or as his presidential rival but as “that one.” That a 72-year-old presidential nominee made such a remark is not only humorous, but also somewhat embarrassing.

If McCain is elected president, my fear is not that he would lead us to an impulsive war; McCain’s temperament is probably somewhat less than that of Joe Biden, a shoot-from-the hip type of guy but hardly a reckless figure. My fear is that he would scuttle deals, with foreign governments or Congress, out of personal pique.

Forgive me for getting on my moral high horse, but that’s not what the country, especially at this moment in history, needs. It needs the first-class temperament of Obama or the temperament that McCain has at times shown.

Mark Stricherz


Halle said...

His temperament may be uncertain, but Sen. McCain's famous temper, despite Cindy McCain's differing opinion, I grow increasingly sure is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. To what degree that he may suffer is unknown, but I'd say all of the famous incidents line up with the symptoms of PTSD. I remain conflicted on this issue: I believe mental health issues, especially those caused by other people's cruelty, should not be barriers, but there are limits. A president who has recovered and knows how to cope (through education and treatment) of symptoms would be fine. But one who remains too stubborn or proud to learn those coping techniques (especially the ability to "dial down" one's pique, anger and knee-jerk reactions) should not be in a position to deal with the most nuanced and intricate issues of our country and the world.

To avoid this in the future, every American should actively support the treatment of all troops involved in the various conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Let's help our veterans with something other than "victory" -- let's give them health, so they can lead exemplary lives without being haunted forever by their service to our country.

Vinny Pellizi said...

I don’t think that John McCain’s temperament should decide this election. While Obama may outclass McCain in this category, I’d rather have the more experienced candidate in office even if he does lose his cool at times. Before Obama starts criticizing McCain on this, he should solidify his knowledge and stance on more important issues, such as foreign policy. McCain’s divorce fiasco, if it is called an act of very poor temperament here, can be no less than that of Bill Clinton, and he did not face much criticism during his presidency, and developed fairly solid economic policies. My point is why should this matter now if it didn’t matter with Clinton? McCain, even with this semi-scandal, can’t lose any political points for it; it will not affect the way he would run the country. It is slightly embarrassing that McCain referred to Obama as ‘that one’, I’ll admit. But everyone lets things slip. As he proves in the final debate, McCain fully exerts a much more stable and solidified knowledge and stance on the key issues than Obama. Obama argued well on a few points; however after the first two rounds of debate, Obama repeated the same stance over and over, often when the discussion did not call for it, and made his positions seem a bit weak. McCain explained his points clearly, thoroughly and kept advancing the discussion. Obama soon found himself without anyway to counter. McCain, with much more class than shown by this article, proved that this temperament issue is not something to worry about when he has an unwavering stance on fundamental issues and knowledgeable enough to back each and every one up.