"Rebels often make good warriors," Evan Thomas was saying to John McCain late last week in Los Angeles. "What is it about that rebellious streak that makes good fighters?"
"I think if you can channel it—and it took me a long time to channel it, as you well know—and mature with it, then I think it's an attribute," McCain replied. You have to get past "self-glory—that 'it's all me' and 'it's my gratification' " and "make the transition" to what he called "a cause greater than myself."
Like many people, particularly many politicians, John Sidney McCain III is a complex figure. His wit can be charming or searing; his temper stoic or volcanic. Unlike virtually anyone else in America other than his comrades in captivity, though, he has endured the unimaginable, and lived not only to tell the tale but to rise from his broken bones and teeth, from years of torture and pain, to become a congressman, a senator and now the front runner to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. He is at once familiar yet mysterious, a hero from an unheroic time, a politician who has long charmed the press with the appearance (and often the reality) of candor, an independent-minded senator who essentially became a party man in the Bush years.
He has a winning personality partly because he acknowledges the obvious—something other politicians train themselves hard not to do. Here is an exchange from his interview with NEWSWEEK: "Back in 2000, when the rumor mill was saying you were crazy, you actually released your medical reports," Evan said to him. "Amazingly, they said that you weren't crazy, which is why it didn't get much pick-up." Most candidates would have disputed the premise, or immediately tacked to talking points about being ready to lead, or something equally anodyne. McCain just laughed, said it was indeed unfortunate nobody had noticed, and moved on. Asked if he has to work on his temper, the answer was straight: "Sure, every day you try to improve your conduct. I am a man of many failings. I make no bones about it. That's why I'm such a believer in redemption. I've done many, many things wrong in my life. The key is to try to improve."
Implicit in the answer, however, is the acknowledgment that there is a temper—why else would he have to try to improve?—and our cover this week explores the roots of McCain's character, from his resilience to his occasional rages. Evan's story is not about the campaign horse race—we will all know the results soon enough—but about the making of a fascinating man. (Evan also writes an essay on the historical intricacies raised by Caroline and Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama.)
A temper is, of course, the expression of powerful emotions, and the rest of us are also in for some scrutiny this week in Sharon Begley's exploration into why we vote the way we do. A hint about the answer: no matter how thoughtful you believe yourself to be about politics, your choice probably has more to do with your heart than with your head. (Like Evan, Sharon does double duty this week, also writing a piece about why happiness may be overrated. Yes, you read that right.) In a guest essay, Karl Rove takes exception to the proposition that the Republican Party is in the midst of an especially difficult identity crisis, and Fareed Zakaria writes on the foreign-policy distinctions between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
With Super Tuesday, we will have a clearer sense of the direction each party is likely to take in the coming months, and perhaps years. That direction will be about policy, but it will also be about the character of the candidates. A new chapter in the 2008 campaign is opening, and it is fairly certain, I think, that it is going to be as rich and as riveting as the months that are already passing into history.