Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Has Been? He's a Never Was.

Noam Scheiber asks the question: McCain Campaign Suspension, Was it a Stunt?

In response to this sob story from Salter:

[McCain] and his senior staff believed he had three options. The most politically appealing was to remain quiet, and then weigh in against the legislation as it was put to a vote, which would have put him on the side of about seventy percent of voters. The second was to offer a vague appeal for improvements to the bill and then keep his distance, mindful that it would probably fail because of House Republican opposition. The third was to become personally involved in finding a compromise that could pass with Republican support and try to convince Senator Obama to join us. He chose the third course, and all his senior staff agreed with him. And while it turned out to be politically costly, I don’t think it was anything less than the responsible decision. Nor do I think it proved to be a fatal injury to his campaign. The financial crisis he was responding to had already very likely made the steep hill he was climbing insurmountable.
Scheiber says, somewhat pacifically:
But if McCain were really serious about the third course, why announce he was suspending his campaign, then stick around New York for a media appearance and a speech the following morning? It seems like someone really committed to personally negotiating a compromise would have basically done the opposite: not make some public show of suspending the campaign, which is why people thought it was a stunt, while returning to Washington immediately.

Yah, it does "seem like" a person who really thought what McCain claimed to think would have done that. And it does "seem like" a person who actually thought they had a leadership role to play would have, you know, flown back to work with the people he was supposed to be leading. What is with this convenient dysnomia? As I listen to post campaign analysis I'm floored by how unwilling the press is to call a spade a spade. Leadership isn't leadership if no one is following. "Character" isn't something other people ascribe to you, it is the sum total of gestures that you have undertaken, sucessful and unsucessful, as you proceed through your life.
Now that Newsweek's in depth reporting on the McCain Campaign backstory has been revealed I think normal people will propose that the question be rephrased as "McCain Campaign? Massive Blunder, Serial Disaster, or Horrendous Clusterfuck of Amateurs?" The campain suspension merely marks the moment that the internal incoherence of a campaign based on a fictional character "John McCain, Maverick Leader" became obvious. (In fact it marked the first time the press noticed that the very categories "maverick" and "leader" were contradictory and the first time they began to question the logic and wisdom of the campaign's insistence that McCain could both be an unapologetic asshole, jerk, and loner and also a supremely important leader of men.)

I had to listen to the moronic Newsweek reporters robotically repeat their year with the campaign in their trademark "I am a camera" style. The woman who covered the McCain campaign still can't bring herself to see that if there is no congruence between McCain's self described "desire to be the 'man in the arena'" (Teddy Roosevelt tm) and his actual abilities once he gets in the arena not to be eaten alive by the fucking lions there's something wrong with her presentation, her analysis, or her basic notions of character and personality. She did say one piercingly true thing about McCain, and by implication Obama. She said that she thought McCain's entire personality was based on doing the surprising, shocking, thing and that he was utterly unable to grasp that there might be some reaction from those around him that would make the gesture unsucessful or, conversly, sucessful. So she said he had clearly decided on the campaign suspension and the flying back to Washington storyline as suitable for "a leader" but literally never asked himself what he would do when he got there to lead. He didn't imaginatively put himself in the position of the Republicans he was supposedly going back to talk to, and he found himself shocked and surprised to get the cold shoulder. And he was surprised, as was his campaign staff, that the stunt was treated so contemptously by the Obama people. This is a failure of imagination on their part which is stunning and it reflects something the bloggosphere has been saying for some time: McCain's whole personality and character is that of a craps player for whom the rest of the table and the other players are meaningless. I might also add that this kind of social tone deafness, this almost autistic inability to "read" a social situation is classically associated with upper class/white/male/heterosexual/priviliged persons. Because they've never been an outsider or a subordinate they have never had to try to read a social scene for cues. Other people have always done that work for them.

I see why McCain and his campaign staff were like this. But what is the press's excuse? The job of the campaign is to produce a new president. To the extent that the McCain campaign failed to do that it simply wasn't a convincing act. But ultimately it wasn't a convincing act because it was utterly false, and based on false premises--the falsest of which was that McCain's "character" was staunch, true, honest, experienced, wise, etc... As far as I can see the entire campaign consisted of McCain presenting his reportorial followers with a series of block lettered story lines: Maverick! Man in the Arena! Leader! Mature! while behind them he paraded nude to the jeers of the very people he was popularly supposed to be leading, maverickly, and maturely. And yet the reporters still can't be bothered, or can't figure out how, to square accounts.

They seem to be tentatively sticking their toe in the water with the Campaign suspension story, but they are still unable to face up to the incongruence between the way they (and the McCain campaign) used words like "leadership" or "maverick" or "contrarian" and the reality of the facts on the ground. If McCain seriously thought the entire economy was going to blow up unless he got the Republicans on board with the bailout then failing to get them on board with the bailout and sitting by silently while they stormed out of the meeting he has called has to be called a massive failure of leadership. Or the failure of a fake leader to grasp that leadership actually entails managing something successfully. This really isn't up for grabs. Mark Salter can stop pretending that McCain has ever led anything in his life. He didn't lead a squadron, he wasn't the top officer in his prison camp, and he's has only ever accomplished a few things while in office. Being in the military doesn't make you a leader--most jobs in the military consist, by definition, of followers taking orders despite the new vogue for calling "soldiers" "warriors." Ditto for hollow terms like "maverick" or "contrarian" or "reformer."

Which leads me, by stealthy routes, to a quote from Confucious that I used to give my students before exams:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.