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Mccain: A Soldier Of The Great War

Ed Kilgore has some interesting thoughts about the biographical message John McCain is rolling out this week:

While there's nothing uncommon or surprising about John McCain's highlighting of his own military record, his decision to identify himself as primarily the product of the military ethic, by family background as well as by personal experience, is unusual, and perhaps risky in a country that has always honored professional warriors but has also insisted on civilian control of the military. It's no accident that the last Annapolis graduate to become president, Jimmy Carter, chose to identify himself as a peanut farmer rather than as a nuclear submarine officer.

McCain's insistence on establishing a distinguished pedigree is counter-intuitive as well. The current president of the United States, after all, went to inordinate lengths to create a public persona remote from his actual aristocratic background as grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a president. Another president who often touted his own military service--John F. Kennedy--did so in no small part to provide a common link to Americans who might otherwise dwell on his father's wealth and political connections. FDR's polio, and TR's cowboy-hunter-soldier machismo, offset their elite backgrounds. And most American presidents and presidential candidates have talked about their ancestors mainly to stress their humble roots, and thus accentuate their own accomplishments. In the Meridian speech and elsewhere, John McCain seems to be visibly struggling, even today, to live up to his family's martial tradition. It's all pretty remarkable.

I think this is definitely a risky strategy for McCain. While Ed rightly points out that McCain's offering a "more appealing" version of the political package Bob Dole presented in 1996, I do think he's still getting very close to Dole territory.

When I read the speech McCain gave the other day in Meridian, Mississippi, I was impressed with the stories and the writing, much like I was impressed with the stories and the writing in Faith of My Fathers. Mark Salter, McCain's speechwriter who co-wrote Fathers and who I'm assuming penned the Meridian speech, is a very gifted writer. But I wonder if Salter's particular style of writing lends itself more to books than to campaign speeches. In a way, Salter's speeches for McCain remind me of the speeches the novelist Mark Helperin wrote for Dole in 1996 (including Dole's resignation speech from the Senate): Soaring meditations on valor and honor but ones that ultimately make the candidate seem archaic and leave voters depressed rather than excited.

I was talking to one McCain friend about this a while back and he made a smart point about the effect Salter's speeches have on McCain. "He's like the last World War One veteran marching alone in the vets parade," this McCain friend said. He added, "There's a melancholy undercurrent to everything McCain says. He understands the sadness of life. That's one of the reasons the press likes McCain, writers get sadness. But your average Sprint salesman doesn't want to hear that." I don't think many Sprint salesmen are going to be won over by McCain's words this week.

--Jason Zengerle