Meacham: Why McCain Matters

First, a disclaimer: I do not know any more, and perhaps less, than you do about what is going to happen in Iowa and New Hampshire. But I do know this: the apparent reconsideration of the candidacy of John McCain is good news for all of us, whatever our politics, for McCain has proved in the campaign what he proved in Vietnam: that patience is a virtue, and, when in doubt, principle is worth a try.

In August I went to interview McCain in the presidential suite of the Doubletree Hotel in Times Square, which sounds glamorous but is not. The cups in the room were plastic, and there was no phalanx of aides—only Mark Salter, the senator's longtime assistant and co-author. Though it was a sunny day outside, the room felt gloomy, dark, and the conversation was serious. McCain was promoting a new book, "Hard Call," about difficult decisions, but much of the talk centered on his then-listing presidential campaign.

He had staked his White House ambitions on President Bush's surge strategy, I wrote then, and not only on its success but on the prospect that enough Americans would agree that progress is being made. There is much to do in Iraq, and much debate over the future, but it is clear to many Americans that the surge has worked in the short run. That was far from foreordained back in August, which made McCain's position a fairly lonely one.

But he had taken his stand, on the principle that success in Iraq is essential, and that, for him, was that. "I don't want to be too melodramatic, but I think it's clear that I've had too many narrow escapes not to believe that there is some purpose for me," he said, then quickly added: "While one of the things I think about when we are in this difficult period is that there are reasons beyond my personal and political ambitions why I should seek the office, in no way do I think I am here because God wants me to president … Unless there is measurable and tangible evidence of success—which I think there is—that can penetrate to the American public, then the result is inevitable. What I am hoping is, what I continue to believe is, that the strategy we now have in place is succeeding sufficiently to convince the American people to give it some more time."

Back then there was a lot of complaining in the press corps that the McCain of 2000, the iconoclast who told it straight, had become a more manufactured—and thus less interesting—McCain of 2008. Asked about that, he said, "I haven't changed, and I feel the same way. I am the same guy. I'm not complaining about it—don't get me wrong. This is what campaigns are for. But I have to do what I think is right." Win or lose, he has certainly done that.