Peggy Noonan was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan. She also wrote a better-then-average biography of Pope John Paul II. A devout Catholic she is both an insight political thinker and a keen observer of what makes a person able to explain things clearly so as to motivate others to follow them.
In her weekly column in the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday Noonan posed several questions about Senator John McCain’s campaign and his reigning philosophy of leadership. She noted:
"One always wonders with Mr. McCain: What exactly does he feel passionately about, what great question? Or rather, what does he stand for, really? For he often shows passion, but he rarely speaks of meaning (emphasis mine). The issues that summon his full engagement are issues on which he’s been challenged by his party and others. McCain, to McCain, is defined by his maverickness. That’s who he is. (It’s the theme of his strikingly good memoir, Worth the Fighting For.) He stands up to power. He faces them down. It’s not only a self image, it’s a self obsession."
She adds: "But it has left him seeming passionate only about those issues on which he’s been able to act out his maverickness, such as campaign finance and immigration. He’s passionate about McCain-Feingold because . . . . He’s passionate about Iraq because America can’t cut and run, as it did in Vietnam, to the subsequent heartbreak of good people, and heroes. But this is not philosophy, it’s autobiography."
And Noonan also writes, “Issues removed from his personal drama, from the saga of John McCain, don’t seem to capture his interest to any deep extent. He has positions, but a series of separate, discrete and seemingly unconnected stands do not coherence make. Mr. McCain, in public, does not dig down to the meaning of things, to why he stands where he stands, to what understanding of life drives his political decisions. But voters hunger for coherence, for a philosophical thread that holds all the positions together.”
As much as I like Peggy Noonan, and quite often agree with her, I do not entirely agree with her assessment of Senator McCain. I have read a great deal of his personal written work (there is a lot of it, more than that by any of the three candidates in the remaining field) and books and articles about him by friend and foe alike. After reading his autobiography in 2000 I quite literally bumped into John McCain in the back stairwell of Congress a few weeks later. I was able to tell him how much I appreciated his courage and the way he wrote his own story. He was quite responsive for that very brief moment and thanked me.
But Peggy Noonan, a lover of Ronald Reagan if there ever was one, asks a good question about Senator McCain’s approach to the really big question: “What is the meaning of things? What is the guiding philosophy? Who has he read besides Hemingway? (And he’s read him—he loves him to an almost scary degree.) Is there a little Burke in there? The Federalist Papers? John Kenneth Galbraith?” I am not sure if McCain has read Burke, or would care to. I know that he has read Galbraith. And he makes no bones about reading and modeling himself after Teddy Roosevelt, which deeply concerns some while it excites others. (This is where he gets his maverick role model it seems to me.) I am quite convinced that he also knows The Federalist Papers, though he may not be a scholar on the subject. (He clearly has a much more inquisitive and curious mind than our present president.) Noonan makes a good point, however. If she read a bit more of McCain she might get a better measure of what he is really all about. The fine book, Citizen McCain, reveals the side that Noonan sees but that is not the whole story.
Robert Timberg’s fine book, John McCain: An American Odyssey, does an excellent job of putting John McCain, warts and all, into perspective and it does this without endorsing a particular end view of the man. McCain wrote of this book, "Bob Timberg . . . often gives me the unsettling feeling that he knows more about me than I do."
I think John McCain does need to find a way to give people a real sense of what things matter to him and why. I have seen this in his own books but I do not hear enough of it in his campaign. This will have to happen if he is to run an aggressive and effective campaign. Noonan is thus right when she concludes: “In the most successful political careers there is a purpose, a guiding philosophy. Not an ideology—ideology is something imposed from above, something abstract dreamed up by an intellectual. Philosophy isn’t imposed from above, it bubbles up from the ground, from life. And its expression is missing with Mr. McCain.”
I think many modern conservatives, fed on talk-shows, popular magazines and Fox News, have never clearly thought about a subject like one’s “guiding philosophy.” They love ideological debates but one wonders if this is sport and gamesmanship more than reaching for a governing philosophy. Reagan clearly had one and that is why he was a brilliant leader. He was much less of an ideologue than many of today’s conservatives. And he was a leader with a strong sense of where he wanted to go and where America’s greatness lay. This is also why Barack Obama cited Reagan and John Kennedy in the same breath when he spoke about leaders who made a difference in our lifetime. Both of these men had what Peggy Noonan writes about and they represented different philosophies and parties, though the parties were not nearly as radically different as the differences today between modern Democrats and modern Republicans. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter seemed to not have this “guiding philosophy,” and thus demonstrated the opposite qualities in their leadership. Hillary Clinton seems to have something of this precisely where her husband did not. She is at least more driven by a specific view of government than Bill was. Face it, Bill was a great politician, a masterful campaigner and a consummate pragmatist. What inner core he possessed remains in doubt the longer I try to figure him out.
I believe Senator McCain does have the ability to communicate “a purpose, a guiding philosophy” but if he does not do this well I doubt that he can win since the Democrats already start the general election campaign with everything going for them because of the huge anti-Bush feelings in the general public. McCain’s challenge will be to show why he is neither Bush nor Clinton. If his challenger is Obama then it seems to me the difficulty for him will be even greater, unless Obama’s own lack of a “guiding philosophy” is demonstrated during the campaign itself. In reading Obama his “guiding philosophy” (if he has one) strikes me as that of uniting people and movements while at the same time he astutely avoids controversial votes and stances that will define him specifically. This is a huge vulnerability that is only now being exploited by the Clinton campaign once the race got tight and the Clinton team realized they were in a political dog fight. Obama’s voting record, however, says he is not a uniter and he has too short a career to demonstrate how he has actually done this. (The obvious truth is that both Clinton and McCain have a stronger case for working with the opposition, and thus uniting the parties to accomplish legislative goals, than Obama.) He is, by record, very far to the left politically. His style says: “I am a uniter. I can bring both sides together.” In the end I do not think this approach will sell itself with those beyond his core constituency. Remember, it is Independents who must be won to win this election. Could it be that this election will come down to likability? If it does then Obama just might win, being younger and more charismatic. If he does win he will not be the first person in American history to win the presidency on that point. (In both of the previous elections we tend to forget than Bush scored higher than both Gore and Kerry in being likable.) Democracy has its real ups and downs. Take your pick. What cheers me is that the rule of law still matters here and we the people are finally what make America great, not the single person who occupies the Oval Office. This is why we have three branches of government and why things seem so often inefficient. The Founders apparently knew what they were doing.