Alter on McCain's "Character"

John McCain wants us to think he's a man of character when he's actually just acharacter. There's a big difference between the two. "Character" connotes moral courage and fortitude, which McCain once possessed but now seems to have misplaced. By contrast, "a character" is merely a person with an instinct for eccentric self-drama that can be amusing or disturbing depending on the circumstances.

Neither the moral preening nor the impulsive zigzagging turned up in McCain's debate performance, which was solid. But the 2008 credit crisis has nonetheless shown his unpresidential side. This McCain commits alarming gaffes (insisting that he hadn't read Henry Paulson's bailout plan when it was only three pages long); engages in rash scapegoating (calling for the chairman of the SEC to be fired); launches almost comically hypocritical attack ads and wraps himself in "Country First" while playing every political angle, like idly threatening to skip the Mississippi debate.

Then, within hours, each of these gambits was suddenly, as Richard Nixon's press secretary once put it, "inoperative." Except for Sarah Palin. We'll be living with his "cynical" selection—the word used by his former communications chief Mike Murphy, and not usually denoting character—every time President McCain sneezes.

Given all that, I wasn't shocked to learn from a friend of Paulson's, who didn't want to risk his friendship by being identified, that Paulson thinks Obama is much more impressive than McCain in their private talks. (Not that Paulson is as much of an authority on all things financial as he thinks he is.) And it's hardly surprising that the country's last remaining financial grown-ups, Paul Volcker and Warren Buffett, are strongly pro-Obama. In fact, Obama could do worse than adopt a "we'll have what Warren's having" approach to the fine print of what the taxpayers get in return for their proposed investment. If it's good enough for Buffett and Goldman Sachs, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

Of course, McCain doesn't much care about the respectable opinions of fuddy-duddys (unless they're Henry Kissinger). "I'm Luke Skywalker getting out of the Death Star!" he said in 2000. His longtime hero is Theodore Roosevelt, who charged off in different directions shouting "Bully!" Rough times, he argues, call for a "Rough Rider."

The TR analogy has some problems. Roosevelt, at 42, was the nation's youngest president; McCain, at 72, would be its oldest elected to a first term. TR was a "trust buster" and the erudite author of more than 40 books; McCain, despite a few lame efforts to portray himself as a crusader against corporate greed, has been a free-market Calvin Coolidge Republican who (to his credit) admits having his books ghostwritten. Roosevelt's exploits in the Spanish-American War were mostly exaggerated; McCain's suffering during the Vietnam War was all too real.

Whatever their differences, you can understand JM's TR fixation. It's fitting for a man who has always been his own action figure. Whether it was flying so low that he once cut power lines in Italy or cheering up his fellow POWs with his antics, McCain has proved a figure of impish fun. This and offering total media access that up to this year resulted in such slobbering press coverage that he only half-jokingly referred to reporters as "my base." Until they started doing their jobs. Then they got trashed.

As long as McCain was in the Senate, the back flips, pirouettes and half-gainers off the high board were exciting. And when they went over badly, McCain developed an appealing habit of profusely apologizing, as he did after shamelessly pandering to racists in South Carolina on the Confederate flag in 2000. Earlier, while denying wrongdoing, he self-flagellated for getting cozy in the 1980s with savings-and-loan crook Charles Keating. This led to his fervor for campaign-finance reform (forgotten this year as his campaign loaded up with lobbyists), but the "Keating Five" S&L debacle did not cause him to support more banking regulation. Because of his charm and the respect others feel for his ability to survive his Vietnam captivity, his apologies were routinely accepted, even if his promises not to ever sell out his principles again were honored in the breach.

McCain's answer to the charge that he's impulsive is that critics said the same thing about TR, and look how he turned out. But Teddy was just the tonic America thirsted for at the time. Unfortunately for McCain, a financial crisis requires something that goes down more smoothly.

That would be Cousin Frank. It may be that McCain has been using the wrong Roosevelt as his role model. FDR was dramatic and improvisational, but the effect was calming. On the night of his 1933 Inauguration, as the financial system imploded, this Roosevelt refused to cancel the Inaugural Ball. The next day, while closing the banks, FDR found some time amid the chaos to work on his stamp collection. Reporters found "no atmosphere of tension" at the White House as a smiling FDR suggested they use the festive term "bank holiday." They did.

Joe Biden referred last week to Roosevelt's going on television in 1929 to calm the country. Of course FDR wasn't president in 1929 and TV hadn't been invented. But the comparison is apt. A credit crisis, millions of potential foreclosures, philosophical differences over the role of government and the market—many of the issues are the same, even if today's crisis is less advanced (so far). The biggest difference from the banking crisis of 1933 is that we haven't yet chosen which candidate we want to confront it.

I saw an old friend recently who told me her father was embarrassed to admit that he gets a bit nervous if he boards an airplane and sees that the pilot is black. He's a "Rotary Club grandpa" from a generation that grew up using rotary phones in a different America. My friend's father is still undecided. He wants a steady hand on the wheel—a pilot who will chart a course, avoid turbulence and land the plane safely. That pilot likely has character. The important kind.