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.