Monday, November 3, 2008

Legacy Building and the 2008 Election

Legacies and history tend to favor the victors. The corollary to that, of course, is that history tends to forget the losers. So for one moment, let's consider John McCain's legacy if tomorrow is his swan song. How will McCain be remembered by history? Will he be remembered as:

  • A U.S. military hero and POW?
  • A member of the Keating 5?
  • A maverick U.S. Senator?
  • The co-author of McCain-Feingold?
  • A twice defeated presidential candidate?
  • The man who launched Sarah Palin's career?
  • Or something else?

Despite all the negative campaigning and all the distortions of which McCain is guilty this campaign, I can't help but maintain some semblance of respect for the man. It seems that after nearly a decade of being in the public's eye and being the media's darling, I can't seem to convince myself that the 2008 McCain is the true McCain versus the 2000 McCain.

At least I couldn't until I read this piece in Rolling Stone Magazine. First, let me warn you, the article is exceptionally long. But it is also amazingly well researched and documented. And has dozens, if not hundreds, of bullets. You know biting quotes. And one of the lines that may help define McCain's legacy for me is this one:

The myth of John McCain hinges on two transformations -- from pampered flyboy to selfless patriot, and from Keating crony to incorruptible reformer -- that simply never happened. But there is one serious conversion that has taken root in McCain: his transformation from a cautious realist on foreign policy into a reckless cheerleader of neoconservatism.

And it is in this snippet that we see the context under which McCain's political life and career has been defined: A politically convenient chameleon. This is a man who has allowed his ambition to define his life, rather than the opposite. McCain, as this article details, has demons which at once both created a desire to achieve greater acclaim than either his 4-star admiral grandfather or father and at the same instilled in him a privilege complex. Essentially a man who wants fame and fortune but isn't really willing to work for it. Interestingly, when I read more and more about McCain, I see more and more of George W. Bush. A man who got to where he is in life almost solely based on his connections and not his own merit. A man who lacks the intellectual curiousity or capacity to truly hold the most powerful position in the world. But I seriously digress.

The question is this: What is McCain's legacy? And I think the answer is: Rather insignificant. He isn't a titan of policy wonkishness; he isn't some courageous legislator; and he isn't some commanding military presence. At the end of the day, he is somewhat of a middling politician, who crafted a pretty decent bill (McCain-Feingold), which, ironically, may have been eviscerated by Obama's presidential campaign and a small donor network. McCain is neither the type of dogmatician, like Barry Goldwater, nor eloquent speaker, like William Jennings Bryan or Daniel Webster, that will preserve his legacy. The fact is he really isn't much more than a media darling, whose ambition wasn't enough to win him the presidency. He's a man who, as Chuck Todd of MSNBC wrote today, missed his timing. A man who probably could have won the presidential election in 2000, when the country was fat and happy in the midst of a ginormous economic boom and much more eager to fight the salaciousness of Washington, but not in 2008 when the country needs serious ideas by serious men.

McCain is merely a product of late 20th Century and early 21st Century media politics. But that isn't the kind of politician or leader for whom great legacies are created. Tomorrow, McCain may enter the rolls of decent politicians who never won the big prize. And that is probably all he really deserves anyway.

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