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Friday, September 05, 2008

Bob Dole, John McCain & Michael Lewis

In 2006, I discussed Trail Fever, Michael Lewis' brilliant account of the 1996 presidential campaign.  At the time I noted:

After pages and pages of describing his disgust with the political process, Lewis finally meets the hero of the book: John McCain.  McCain speaks his mind.  McCain is loyal, even when it hurts him to be.  McCain is a war hero, but is self-effacing about it.  He has an acerbic sense of humor. . . .  Lewis did a follow-up profile of McCain for the New York Times Magazine, entitled "The Subversive."   While I have not done a historical study of the McCain phenomenon, my guess is that Lewis is the one responsible for this senator's leap into the national consciousness.  If John McCain becomes our next President, "Trail Fever" got him started.

Recently, however, I have been wondering if Michael Lewis still has the same sense of McCain as the maverick he so admired.  Lewis has been surprisingly silent about McCain's latest campaign -- surprising to me, at least, because he was so instrumental in McCain's popularity.  What does Lewis think now?  Is McCain still the reformer he lauded, or has he given himself over to the "rented strangers" who run political campaigns?

In thinking this over, I was actually struck by the number of similarities between McCain and Bob Dole, particularly as Lewis described him in Trail Fever.  According to Lewis, Bob Dole was a decent man, a war hero, who had given himself over to the political consultants in a last ditch attempt to achieve his political dreams.  Dole's campaign, seen through the eyes of Lewis, was a Greek tragedy -- the foreordained failure of a noble man who has traded his principles for politics.

John McCain in 2008 has many similarities to Bob Dole in 1996.  McCain is 72; Dole was 73.  McCain has served 22 years in the Senate; Dole had served 27.  Both are war heroes with compelling stories of sacrifice for their country.  Both divorced their first wives and remarried younger women.  (Cindy McCain is 18 years younger than John McCain; Elizabeth Dole is 13 years younger than Bob Dole.)  Both are reputed to have harsh tempers but are liked for their acerbic wit.

And both campaigns share similarities, too.  Both men had run for president before and had suffered stinging defeats.  Both men won the nomination with perhaps less enthusiasm from their party's base than other nominees had enjoyed.  Both picked younger running mates to add excitement to their campaigns.

The following are some passages from Trail Fever that resonated with me as I listened to McCain's speech tonight.

Here's the description in Trail Fever about McCain's role in Dole's VP choice (pp. 201-02).  It reminded me of McCain's dalliance with Lieberman as a running mate:

Somehow, despite his alarming preference for the truth, McCain's name ended up on the shortlist of possible running mates for Dole. . . . When I ask McCain why Jack Kemp, whom Dole has ridiculed for years, and not he was chosen, he laughs and says, "I've lived a rich and full life, my friend.  A better life than you even.  And when you do that that you end up with a few skeletons in your closet."  This is true.  He went through a messy divorce.  He was charged with (then exonerated from) aiding and abetting savings and loan crook Charles Keating in exchange for campaign contributions.  But mainly what he has against him, I think, is his willingness to say what is on his mind.  I'd like to think that Dole secretly enjoys this quality in McCain. . . . But honesty is kryptonite to the rented strangers.

That's the other reason McCain may have been passed over: Dole's most senior staffers -- Scott Reed and John Buckley -- once worked for Kemp.  Kemp's selection is the best evidence yet that Dole has given himself entirely over to them.

Here's a passage about Bob Dole and NAFTA (pp. 295-96), which reminded me of McCain and immigration:

We seem to have arrived at a point in our politics where the means (how politicians win elections) are so all-consuming that the ends (what politicians do once they win) become obscured.  Consider U.S. trade policy, for instance . . . . When he was a senator, Bob Dole led the fight to pass [NAFTA].  That is, he took a clear, principled stand that the United States is better off opening its markets to foreigners.  But once he became a presidential candidate, Dole muddied this view beyond recognition, until even the attentive voter couldn't really say what Dole would do if elected. . . . It was as if he felt a professional obligation not to say what he believed.

Finally, this is Lewis' description of the Dole campaign (pp. 89, 92-93):

A dozen times I listen to his talk, pen poised idly over paper.  Nothing.  Not a thought, not an image, not a quote.  It takes me a while to figure out why this is, and then it strikes me: Bob Dole isn't running for president.  The concept of Bob Dole is running.  The man himself has subcontracted out all the dirty work to people who make their careers managing reality for politicians. . . .

The Dole campaign, in short, resembles what many people suspect the Buchanan campaign is: closed, secretive, nasty, a bit smug.  Maybe that's what happen when you lose once too often: you stop trusting the voters. . . .

Posted by Matt Bodie on September 5, 2008 at 01:20 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Actually, I think tabbing Lieberman would've been an unprincipled move. Aside from Iraq, they disagree on everything. Why would you pick a guy who would advance an entirely different agenda in the event of your death? It just goes to show what everyone says, that McCain doesn't have any real views on domestic policy beyond whatever's politically expedient at the moment. Right now, he has to be far to the right enough to hold his base. Six years ago, he might as well have been a Democrat.

Posted by: Asher | Sep 5, 2008 4:35:51 PM

This is a great post, Matt. There are all sorts of reasons to miss Michael Lewis these days. His perspective on McCain, whatever it might be, is surely one of them.

Posted by: anon in la | Sep 5, 2008 12:29:54 PM

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