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The Decline Of John Mccain

Richard Stern, novelist and emeritus professor of English at the University of Chicago, weighs in on John McCain's latest campaign tactics:

I'm not going to pussyfoot here: John McCain is, day by day, disgracing himself, soiling his reputation as an independent, honest man of wit and wisdom who, during the Vietnam war, as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton, behaved under torture and torment with the kind of courage and tenacity very few could come anywhere near matching. Yes, he gave a statement his captors wanted, but he made it clear to Americans that he didn't stand behind his words. He resisted offers of release knowing that shame would follow him all his life and stain his military family's unblemished escutcheon.

In the Senate, he sank to what he called his lowest point when he was "fooled" into becoming one of the senatorial stooges of a Savings & Loan tycoon/crook, and bore the notorious label as one of the Keating Five. For this singular departure from his political standard, he apologized.

In 2000, running against George Bush, he endured the filthy innuendoes of the Bush campaign. At a debate, seated beside Bush who was assuring him he had nothing to do with the filth, he said "Don't give me that shit. And take your hand off me." A photograph (recently reprinted in TIME) shows him glaring at Bush with pure hatred. His later embraces of the successful opponent were awkward only partially because the arms broken in prison were incapable of more physical conviction.

Now McCain is using ads and giving speeches which are almost as debased as those of that 2000 Bush campaign. Questioned, he defends them. Such usually fine commentators as David Brooks (an ex-student of mine) claim that the senator must campaign in this rut of attack because the campaign McCain's admirers expected and hoped for wasn't drawing sufficient attention. This is as low and foolish as Brooks has gone in his brilliant journalistic career. Why shouldn't McCain break through the Obama magic or "mania' by going on doggedly and decently, ignoring the so-called pragmatists in his campaign and ignoring polls, simply exhibiting the straightforward, witty, and sometimes-heroic self who became an exemplary public servant? I am not the only one who might then alter my Obama allegiance and vote for him. In any case, he would be defeated as an honorable person instead of as a weakened old man who sold out to the lowest common denominator.

--Richard Stern