Barack Obama bumped into something hard on Saturday night. The nuanced naif of Illinois preceded — in Paris Hilton’s wonderful snark — the “wrinkly white-haired dude” in Pastor Rick Warren’s civility summit and came up very short.
You can judge how well McCain did by the minimalist coverage in the media. The highlights reported here were virtually ignored in the Sunday papers.
McCain has never been better. His self deprecation, his humor, and his life story turned the back-to-back interviews into a conclusive demonstration that he is ready for the presidency and Obama isn’t.
McCain was energized, comfortable and quietly eloquent in explaining why his life proves the most important of qualities in a president: character and core beliefs. Obama — consistently charming and shallow — demonstrated neither of those qualities.
John McCain was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than five years. Researching an article four years ago on John Kerry’s antiwar activities during many of those same years, I interviewed more than a half-dozen of McCain’s fellow POWs. Each of them, in much the same words, said “I wouldn’t be alive today but for the personal courage of John McCain.”
That courage was explained, calmly, by McCain when Warren asked him to describe the most difficult “gut-wrenching” decision in his life.
McCain answered, “It was long ago and far away in a prison camp in North Vietnam. My father was a high ranking admiral. The Vietnamese came and said that I could leave prison early. And we had a code of conduct that said you only leave by order of capture. I also had a dear and beloved friend who was from California by the name of Ed Alvarez who had been shot down and captured a couple years before me. But I wasn’t in good physical shape. In fact I was in rather bad physical shape.”
“So I said no. Now, in interest of full disclosure, I’m very happy I didn’t know the war was going to last for another three years or so. But I said no. And I’ll never forget. The high-ranking officer who offered it slammed the door and the interrogator said go back to your cell, it’s going to be very tough on you now. And it was. But [it was] not only the toughest decision I ever made but I’m most happy about that decision than any decision I’ve ever made in my life. It took a lot of prayer. It took a lot of prayer.”
In answer to the same question, the best Obama could do was to claim his decision to oppose the war in Iraq was his toughest. How that was a gut-wrenching decision he didn’t explain. Given the fact that his campaign for the Democratic nomination succeeded because that “decision” gave Obama a huge advantage among the anti-war liberals who control the Democratic Party, Obama’s answer revealed political calculation, not moral courage.
McCain was presidential; Obama was a policy wonk. Warren, in the context of taxation, asked each candidate to define who is rich. Obama wandered around to conclude that a family whose income is $150,000 or less is “middle class.” McCain defined “rich” not in terms of dollar income, but in security, opportunity and freedom to choose the future of the family’s children. McCain sounded Reaganesque: “I think that rich is — should be defined — by a home, a good job and education and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited.”
McCain took a full swing on question after question. Obama bunted.
Answering Warren’s question of when a baby is entitled to human rights, Obama said, “Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”
Obama said he was pro-choice. When pressed to say whether he’d ever voted to limit abortions, Obama slipped and slid around the question, claiming he was in favor of limits on late-term abortions, but cited no example of ever voting for legislation to create such limits. McCain said plainly that he believed that life beings at conception and that, “I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro life policies. That’s my commitment, that’s my commitment to you.”
Obama defined marriage as between a man and a woman but then launched into an academic disquisition on why he wouldn’t support a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said, “I think my faith is strong enough and my marriage is strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others even if I have a different perspective
or a different view.” Obama apparently believes gay marriage is a “civil right.” McCain doesn’t.
McCain — an attack pilot, not a lawyer — apparently has a deeper understanding of Constitutional law than the former chief of the Harvard Law Review. He said he’d support a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, “…If a Federal court decided that my state of Arizona had to observe what the state of Massachusetts decided, then I would favor a Constitutional amendment.” The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution compels that result. Without an amendment, any gay marriage from any state must be given legitimacy by every other state.
Saturday night, Obama’s charm failed to mask his humorlessness. McCain’s comparative charm deficit (“You know, by a strange coincidence I was not elected ‘Miss Congeniality’ in the United States Senate this year. I don’t know why”) didn’t mask his sense of humor.
Asked to name a changed position, McCain gently mocked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by saying his new-found support for offshore drilling wouldn’t be popular with many people “here in Caleefornia.” Talking about how America needs to build more nuclear power plants, McCain said that America likes to imitate the French. Most endearingly to those of us who cannot resist poking fun at the genetically disagreeable French, McCain said, “…and by the way if you hadn’t noticed we now have a pro-American president of France which proves if you live long enough anything can happen in America.”
McCain scored a lot of points with conservatives in the Saturday night forum. His performance was so strong, and if he chooses to capitalize on it, this could be a tipping point for McCain.
His next opportunity to take a big step along that path will be the choice of his running mate. Choosing a strong conservative (Fred Thompson? Mike Pence?) to run with him, McCain could energize and unite Republicans for the remainder of this campaign. 2008 need not be a disaster for Republicans. The decisions that could prove the doomsayers wrong are not above John McCain’s pay grade.