Capable of honor

The hot political whispers are that Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, the guy who took on George W. Bush in the primaries four years ago, might stun the world and accept the Democratic nomination for vice president.

Such a deal would cause tremendous excitement. Last week, a New York Times poll said McCain was the leading choice of all voters to be Sen. John Kerry’s running mate. The two senators are friends, and across the country, columnists say a Kerry-McCain ticket would be a virtually sure winner.

However, it won’t happen. I know that because I met privately with McCain last week and asked him, and he flatly told me he wouldn’t do it.

Would you consider that a “Sherman statement”? I asked, after the general who once said, “If nominated I won’t run, and if elected I won’t serve.”

Yes, McCain said, without any waffling, which caused me to have enormous respect for his understanding of our political system.

“I feel that, one, I would be leaving my party, whether I nominally did so or not, and I don’t want to do that. I am a Republican. I believe in the party of Lincoln and [Theodore] Roosevelt. And I think it is very likely that I could see a diminution of my influence, because the vice president is not his own person.”

Grinning, he reminded me of the old joke that the vice-president really had only two duties: To preside over the Senate and to inquire after the health of the president. He mused, “Vice President Cheney has — because of his relationship with the president — a very exceptional [policy-making] role to play, but I would argue he is the exception rather than the rule.”

McCain — who has used the U.S. Senate as a bully pulpit on issues ranging from his great cause, campaign finance reform, to immigration — is not a man cut out to be standby equipment.

Even if he were, he realizes such a bipartisan dream ticket would never work. Democrats giddy at the idea today would have second thoughts when they realized that while he is honest and principled, McCain is far to the right of them on most issues. He has been a supporter of John Ashcroft, for example, and an opponent of workplace ergonomic standards and most pro-labor legislation.

He is also very strongly in favor of the Iraq war. “What we did was right,” he told me. “Though it is terribly obvious we have a long way to go before we can say we’ve successfully installed a government and a representative democracy.”

Were he to become vice president under John Kerry and then succeed to the office through tragedy, it is hard to imagine how he could propose policy, since Republicans would regard him as a traitor, and Democrats as someone who is not really one of them. That’s what happened the only other time we had a vice president of one party succeed a president of another, and as historians can tell you, Andrew Johnson was ineffective and got himself impeached.

John McCain knows all that, although he would dearly like to be president and also knows that this year almost certainly would have been his last chance. Four years from now, he will be 72, and, as Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan showed us, that is too old to be president.

But not too old to be the conscience of his party. McCain told me he would campaign for George Bush, and that he has a “cordial relationship” with him. That last is a little hard to believe.

Four years ago, I was in South Carolina during the primary campaign there and saw the smear campaign the Bush Republicans mounted against McCain, an authentic American hero who spent seven years being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp. I can’t believe he thinks the part-time air ace of the Alabama National Guard ought to be commanding his Air Force.

Yet McCain knows how the system works, and he is a man of honor. His real problem happens to be what he said — that he is a member of the party of Honest Abe and the trust-busting, pro-conservation Teddy Roosevelt.

Trouble is, what he may not be willing to fully admit, even to himself, is that the folks running the Republican Party turned it into the party of Enron and the cynical race card years ago. He did say he worried that the Republicans were in danger of permanently being unable to compete on the East and West coasts.

I asked McCain if he knew what Teddy Roosevelt did when he decided his party had been hijacked. TR started the Progressive Party and knocked an incumbent Republican president into third place. But that also resulted in the Democrats winning. McCain wouldn´t even talk about that option.

Nor can I imagine him doing that during what he regards as wartime.

Allen Drury once wrote a novel whose title asked if politicians were Capable of Honor. Let’s hope McCain stays in the Senate for a long time.

Freedom of Speech: Howard Stern fans reacted with outrage to last week’s column, in which I noted that the airwaves are public property, and said there is no constitutional right to broadcast sickening garbage.

Disagreement is healthy, but I wondered if some of the writers actually read my column, in which I noted A) Stern is far from the worst of the worst, and B) the Federal Communications Commission allows broad freedom to broadcast just about anything after 10 p.m.

And though I am a liberal-minded freethinker, I do not see how discussing on prime-time radio how to rape a baby is a freedom of the press issue. Nor do I think censoring talk about eating one’s own excrement is the beginning of a slippery slope that will end with outlawing politically controversial speech. So sue me.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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