One has to look upon the present plight of Senator John McCain with some sympathy. Although he has toiled mightily to win the Presidency, he appears to be well behind his Democratic opponent Barack Obama. For McCain, given the time, effort and money he and his friends have expended in his unsuccessful, twenty-year pursuit of the office, it will be a painful defeat.
But he will suffer more than merely having lost the contest. He will have lost something of his reputation, his stature and perhaps even his place in the pantheon of great Americans.
From the time of his release from a North Viet Nam prison thirty-five years ago where he had been locked up, tortured, and mistreated for six years, ex-fighter pilot McCain was a genuine American hero. During his years of incarceration, he took everything the North Vietnamese had to throw at him. He rejected early release and held out honourably until he was released along with his compatriots. His resilience to unfathomable adversity and cruelty made him one of the greats – right up there with Babe Ruth and Neil Armstrong. Just a step down from Lincoln and maybe Eisenhower.
Public service was in his genes. Once out of military service this son and grandson of Admirals then pursued high public office. He started first as a Congressman and wound up as a high-profile and successful Senator from Arizona.
He then went for the brass ring – the Presidency of the United States. He ran respectably in 2000 in the Republican primaries against George W. Bush. However, the Bush Republican pedigree and the dishonorable tactics of Bush’s brain Karl Rove did McCain in. The whole experience was not a happy one for McCain, who clearly believed he was beaten by a lesser man. In fact, McCain was beaten by a dim-witted, silver spooned ideologue and it should have been a signal to him.
But McCain didn’t get the signal. Instead he bunked in with the Bush administration. Over the next 8 years he voted with his conqueror more than 90% of the time. He supported Bush in all of his misadventures and became a spear carrier and drum beater for the worst administration in American history.
For the past couple of years, McCain once again has been reaching for the brass ring. This time he came closer than in 2000. He won the Republican nomination and has been battling it out tooth and nail to win the Presidency.
In the process the war hero has invited the public in to see far more of his character than it had ever seen before. The American people have been introduced to what he really seems to believe about foreign and domestic policy. They have been given the opportunity to rummage around all of the darker nooks and crannies of his life. They have seen him operate under stress and observed his judgment lapses and periodic meanness. They have witnessed the actions of his political handlers and advisors. And for all of that, most Americans will vote for his opponent on Tuesday, probably in a big way.
Had McCain been satisfied with his accomplishments as a Senator and remained in that capacity, it would have been better for him. He would have continued to be a revered American hero and have a real impact on public policy – for better or worse. He is now diminished in a real way. His name will no longer invite a rush of respect or awe except perhaps for rock-ribbed red necks, neocons or religious nuts who comprise the base (dare I say, the basest) of the Republican Party. He has not met expectations. It would have been better for him had he recognized and accepted his limitations and not pursued the Presidency. He would have been remembered as a war hero and a pretty good Senator. Instead, mixed up with his hero and good senator status, there will also be the memory of a bumbling, petty, hawkish candidate who trivialized the presidency with his choice of a running mate, and who led his party to a staggering defeat.
Canadians have seen this happen in our country. John Turner (pictured below) was the vaunted Prince-in-exile for many years waiting for Trudeau to leave the scene. He was regarded as an excellent minister and served in many portfolios up to his departure from government in 1976. During the ensuing eight years in the private sector, the incessant natterings of the chattering classes convinced the public that Turner had the attraction and talent of a JFK and would make everybody forget about Trudeau. Furthermore, Turner's political pals big and small made him believe that, by God, he could go all the way and be a great Prime Minister. He would be a genuine Canadian hero. Our superman.
After Turner won the Grit leadership and once the public eye was focused only on him alone and people had taken a good gander at him, they wondered what all the fuss was about. They concluded that he was not that special. He did not meet those early soaring expectations. His tenure as Prime Minister was one of the shortest on record. His time as Liberal leader was not particularly happy times. When he left in 1990 to reenter the private sector he was regarded as a fine Canadian and a good man but not a particularly good leader. The myth of his extraordinary political skills had long since been shattered. His vaunted political reputation was sadly diminished.
Not only did Turner fail to meet public expectations. Also, like McCain he did not realize his own political limitations when he should have, namely before entering the leadership contest. Had Turner not returned to seek the leadership, people would have remembered him as a excellent minister and as a larger than life politician who could have been a great leader. That would have been much better for him than people remembering him as being a lackluster leader who couldn’t beat Brian Mulroney.
The same was true of former Alberta premier Don Getty (pictured below). Getty was regarded as a cool operator when he was a senior minister during the Lougheed era. A former football star with the Edmonton Eskimos, Getty was thought to be – like Lougheed - an intelligent and urbane no-nonsense leader. He had done well in the portfolios he had handled for Lougheed and the Tory party together with other Albertans believed that he would be an excellent successor to Lougheed and would continue on with Alberta’s Camelot. The Tories elected him leader in 1985.
Alas, he was quickly plagued by serious bad luck in having to face a growing recession and plumetting oil prices. But worse than that, now that the unrelenting public focus was on Getty alone, people found him a tentative and uncertain communicator. He also lacked inspirational skills during difficult economic times, with a recession and a rising deficit and debt. Increasingly, people began to believe that Getty just did not have 'it.' Party support began to crumble. Citizens began to get angry. He lost his Edmonton seat and had to get elected elsewhere. Anti-Getty cabals broke out within the party. In 1992, he packed it in.
Getty too was a disappointment and re-entered normal society as a diminished figure. He too should have perceived his political limitations much earlier. Had he done so he might have left in the public mind the memory of an outstanding minister who in failing to go after the top job deprived the people of Alberta of a great Premier. Instead he left with the reputation of a failed Premier.
A similar example was the fate of Paul Martin Jr. (pictured below). As Finance Minister he was regarded by the press and other Canadians as a powerhouse. He succeeded in slashing the deficit to zero and even paid off some debt. He was widely touted and regarded as better leadership material than the man he so wanted to succeed, Jean Chretien. For several years he and his people worked tirelessly at toppling Chretien and finally succeeded at the end of 2003.
Now the spotlight was exclusively on Martin. Canadians were unimpressed. He appeared to be indecisive. Many thought he was vindictive and small-minded. Many found his passionate speeches to be shallow and fatuous. His support nose-dived. He eked out a minority government in his first electoral contest as Prime Minister. But he lost the next, and he was out. It was another case of the public concluding the emperor had no clothes, a conclusion that he had to carry with him back into private life. Neither did Paul Martin appreciate his political limitations. Had he done so and not pursued the brass ring there is no doubt that he would have left with the enviable reputation of being one of the greatest finance ministers of all time. At the moment his reputation is soiled from the public observation that he was a whopping disappointment as a prime minister and was the man who split the Liberal Party.
This whole idea of recognizing one's own limitations is a tricky and painful business. The fact that aspirants to high public office are continually surrounded by backslappers, flatterers and fawners makes it very difficult to be objective about oneself. Furthermore, the constant beguiling press bafflegab about one’s superlative leadership skills is hard to resist.
But there are many politicians who withstand these siren calls. Peter Lougheed (pictured above) was one when he was asked to seek the leadership of the national PC’s. He turned it down. Brian Tobin turned down the chance to run to lead the federal Liberals. Frank McKenna has now done it three times. All of their reputations remain undiminished. Indeed they may grow not only because of their accomplishments in their political and subsequent business careers but also because of the wistful thoughts of their legions of admirers about what might have been.
Aspiring leaders of the Liberal Party of Canada should think seriously about all of this before they file their papers. They should ask some very tough questions about themselves before they go grabbing for the brass ring.