Why McCain’s Collapse Matters

In early November 2003, at a time when Fred Dalton Thompson was playing a tough D.A. on "Law and Order," John McCain was cross-examining Donald Rumsfeld for real on Capitol Hill. It was still very early into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but the as-yet-unacknowledged (by Rummy, that is) insurgency was already out of control. Alone among his fellow GOP senators, McCain blasted Rumsfeld for not putting enough U.S. troops on the ground, and for resorting too soon to "Iraqification"—that is, transferring security to ill-prepared Iraqi forces. In an extraordinarily blunt speech at the Council on Foreign Relations that grim autumn, McCain warned that ultimately Iraq could become another Vietnam "if we lose popular support in the United States."

The next day, the secretary of Defense asked McCain to breakfast. "I read your speech," harrumphed Rumsfeld (that "must have been an enjoyable experience for him," McCain later joked to me). Then Rummy patiently explained to his fellow Republican why he and his top civilian brass (Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith and the usual crowd of incompetents) would continue to do things the same way. They "believed there was no need for additional troops," McCain later related. McCain had already realized that Rumsfeld was a lost cause. The real question, the senator suggested to me back then, was whether George W. Bush himself would push Rummy to make changes. "I'd like to see the president fully engaged," McCain said. Bush needed to be on top of "more details of what's going on."

As we now know nearly four years later, McCain was dead on in his analysis of what went wrong in Iraq. Right down to the need for Bush to get engaged and fire Rumsfeld. McCain was so right that, among military experts today, the emerging conventional wisdom about Bush's current "surge" is that if it had occurred back then—when McCain wanted it and the political will existed in this country to support it for the necessary number of years—it might well have succeeded. Now even McCain's fellow Republicans, frightened of the polls and Bush's Nixonian level of unpopularity, are insisting on success in an impossible nine months (by September, that is). That's a benchmark Gen. David Petraeus and others in the Iraq command realize is simply untenable. The disparity between the timelines in Washington and Baghdad is now so huge that failure is all but foreordained.

Oh yeah, and Fred Dalton Thompson is still acting on TV, having abandoned Washington for Hollywood five years ago, in the middle of the biggest national crisis since Vietnam. Presumably Thompson will keep acting until he announces for president, which some politicos think will instantly make him the front runner in a field that apparently no longer has room for John McCain. Thompson is, after all, a very good actor—an even better one, many say, than Ronald Reagan was.

And that points up a sad fact of political life in Washington. Americans can't get enough of praising our military men and women in public—the people who actually know something about war. But we no longer want to elect them president. In a national culture besotted with TV
"reality" shows, no one seems able to tell what reality is any more. We saw that in 2004 when two draft dodgers—Bush and Dick Cheney—brazenly painted a Silver Star winner, John Kerry, as fatally soft on war. We're seeing the same dynamic play out again now. McCain has his flaws, God knows—an explosive temper, age, dubious health, among other things. And many of his campaign's wounds are self-inflicted, especially McCain's mismanagement of his campaign team. But he's a man of genuine courage, integrity and charisma; among other issues, McCain has bravely taken a lonely stand on restoring honor to military interrogations. Fred Thompson has spent most of his post-9/11 career playing this sort of character in the movies. A few weeks ago, when I asked McCain at a Washington event why he didn't get more credit on the campaign trail for having been right on what went wrong with Iraq, he gave his usual self-deprecating shrug and said his campaign was "rethinking" its message. In the next few days, though, his campaign imploded instead.

McCain aside, the most prescient and impressive Republicans have often been those who tasted combat in the jungles of Southeast Asia and who were leery of the Iraq invasion. Among them: retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander, and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, both of whom warned with stunning accuracy that the Iraq War would be a disastrous diversion from the fight against Al Qaeda. As Zinni said in a speech in August 2002, taking a crack at the civilian neocons, "It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way. And all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war see it another way." Hagel, an Army infantryman who came home from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, put it even more starkly in comments he made to NEWSWEEK, also in the summer of 2002. "Many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," he said. "They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit."

Yet where are the calls in the GOP to draft Zinni, who's all but disappeared from view? Or Hagel, who has so little support from his Republican base that he's still hesitant about whether to run for president? On the Democratic side John Kerry is a political goner, as is Wesley Clark, it seems. It's certainly not necessary that we revert back to the political environment of the last century or two, when war heroes were favored for the presidency—from George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. But it does seem to me that if we're going to lionize our military heroes in public we ought to cut them some more slack on the campaign trail. Maybe we even ought to think about giving John McCain another chance.