There was a moment New Hampshire election night about 5:30 when all of us with a professional interest in the presidential election could barely contain our happiness. Anchors, correspondents, analysts, commentators, speakers-for-hire, columnists the whole cash-and-carry crew of us felt like munitions makers at the beginning of a protracted war. We would be doing what we love to do, the whole world would be watching, and we would probably profit from it.
The late afternoon exit pole had just been released, and it confirmed the earlier data dumps: John McCain by 20 points, Bill Bradley within a few points of Al Gore. According to ancient tradition, Republican bank managers vote in the morning and Democratic assembly line workers vote in the afternoon (of course the tradition was established long before most voters were in service industries, which does not meet either category). But honoring the ancient myth, we couldn’t be sure of our good fortune until the afternoon votes had been gauged. But by 5:30 or 6 p.m. we knew for sure. The Republican primary battle was going to be the most exciting since the 1968 Democratic campaign between Lyndon Johnson, Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.
On the Democratic side it looked like Mr. Bradley might be able to dog Mr. Gore for months, rather like Ted Kennedy plaguing President Jimmy Carter right to the convention in 1980. For those of us who love to be in the middle of history, a McCain victory might mark the beginning of an entirely new period of American politics: the end of the Reagan era and the beginning of the second Teddy Roosevelt era. Virtually no one now alive has seen a charismatic president try to govern radically from the center.
Even for those who just love the excitement of a hard-fought presidential campaign, here was the expectation of high drama, many reversals of fortune, and a possible dream match-up. The most entertaining contest would be the now likely pairing of McCain vs. Gore (although an unlikely three-way contest between Messrs. Bush, Gore and McCain/Bradley on the reform ticket would offer up the political version of the Kama Sutra.)
Consider McCain vs. Gore. In Mr. McCain we have an irrepressible and whimsical character prepared to take a wild gamble on utter openness and truth, but who combines these charming traits with a military sense of tactics, an animal cunning and a center of cold steel. This unlikely combination of traits is tied together by an overpowering sense of personal honor. It will be interesting to watch him confront the inevitable conflicts between honor and tactics. If he mishandles those contradictions, he will be judged a hypocrite. If he gets it right, he has a shot at greatness.
It has been said of Mr. McCain that he is running on his biography. That is not quite right. It is true that in this soft and safe age in which we live, those of us who have not been tested by five and a half years of torture at the hands of communist devils are intimidated and awed by his heroism. But his political appeal is not simply the fact that he suffered with courage, but rather the sterling personality formed in the crucible of that suffering.
He could have turned resentful, but he became joyous. He could have become vindictive against his captors, but he became magnanimous. He could have chosen a life of ease, but he chose to return to the arena. It is well to remember, however, at this moment of his temporary apotheosis, that there is a fine line between a sense of honor and a sense of self-righteousness; and that in the team sport of politics, independence often looks like betrayal. In the coming weeks the Bush team (including many of Mr. McCain’s unadmiring Senate colleagues) will present the negative view of John McCain for public consideration.
If the hateful portrait of Mr. McCain these men are now beginning to draw does not seem realistic to the Republican primary voters, then Mr. McCain will be the likely nominee.
No greater contrast of personality to Mr. McCain could be found in the current political scene than that of the likely Democratic nominee, Al Gore. While he is such an egregious fellow that, according to network polls, even many of those who voted for him didn’t like him, he has one skill that may offset his personality mismatch with Mr. McCain. Mr. Gore has a remarkable ability to talk for hours without letting a single unfocus-grouped word fall from his mouth.
A McCain/Gore match-up would test whether an authentic personality can beat a dissembler who has scientifically programmed himself to say always exactly what the public wants to hear. Mr. Gore will get the maximum number of votes snarable by such methods, but very few more. Many of us will be holding our breath to see if the Clinton method is transferable to someone so charmless and obvious as the vice president.