I've been covering John McCain steadily for a decade. A few years ago, I worked on a book, which I foolishly never completed, on the U.S. Senate with McCain as the central character. So when I step back and think of McCain, even in the heat of this campaign, I still think of him first in the real world of governing, not in the show-business world of the election.
I think first of the personal qualities. He was an unfailingly candid man. When other politicians described a meeting, they ended up the heroes. But McCain would always describe the meeting straight, emphasizing his own failings with more vigor than his accomplishments.
He is, for a politician, a humble man. The most important legacy of his prisoner-of-war days is that he witnessed others behaving more heroically than he did.
His mood darkened as the Iraq war deteriorated, but his accomplishments mounted. He lobbied relentlessly for a change of strategy in Iraq, holding off the tide that would have had us accept defeat and leave Iraq to its genocide.
He negotiated a complicated immigration bill with Ted Kennedy. He helped organize the Gang of 14 and helped save the Senate from polarized Armageddon over judicial nominations. He voted against opportunist bills like the pork-laden energy package and the prescription drug plan. He led a crusade against Jack Abramoff and the sleaze-meisters in his own party and exposed corrupt Pentagon contracts.
At a defense conference in Munich, I saw him diagnose and confront Russian hegemony. Week after week, I saw him dissent from GOP colleagues as their party lost its way.
Some who cover the campaign seem to have no knowledge of anything but the campaign, but I can't get these events – which required the constant application of judgment, honor and courage – out of my head.
Do I wish he was running a different campaign? Yes.
It's not that he has changed his political personality that bothers me. In this media-circus environment, you simply cannot run for president as a candid, normal person.
No, what disappoints me about the McCain campaign is it has no central argument. I had hoped that he would create a grand narrative explaining how the United States is fundamentally unprepared for the 21st century and how his worldview is different.
McCain has not made that sort of all-encompassing argument, so his proposals don't add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a groundbreaking argument about why he is different, he's had to rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat. He has no frame to organize his response when financial and other crises pop up.
He has no overarching argument in part because of his Senate training and the tendency to take issues on one at a time – in part, because of the foolish decision to run a traditional right-left campaign against Barack Obama and, in part, because McCain has never really resolved the contradiction between the Barry Goldwater and Teddy Roosevelt sides of his worldview. One day he's a small-government Western conservative; the next he's a Bull Moose progressive. The two don't add up – as we've seen in his uneven reaction to the financial crisis.
So, when people try to tell me the McCain on the campaign trail is the real McCain and the one who came before was fake, I say baloney. A half-century of evidence is there.
If McCain is elected, he will retain his instinct for the hard challenge. With that Greatest Generation style of his, he will run the least partisan administration in recent times. He is not a sophisticated conceptual thinker, but he is a good judge of character. He is not an organized administrator, but he has become a practiced legislative craftsman. He is, above all – and this is completely impossible to convey in the midst of a campaign – a serious man prone to serious things.