Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's Not Temper - It's Temperament

Michael Gerson presents a typically mindless defense of John McCain's temper, arguing in the alternate first that McCain doesn't really have a temper problem, and second that if he does it doesn't mean he isn't suited to be President. Only at the end of his editorial does he touch on the real issue,
On the evidence of the Virginia speech, McCain's worst temptation is not anger but arrogance. Opponents are not merely wrong; they are self-interested and corrupt. In a righteous cause, McCain can be self-righteous.
That, he quickly dismisses as "inseparable from McCain's political appeal". Really? The public perceives McCain as an arrogant, self-righteous narcissist? How appealing.

Here, Gerson plays an accidental Marc Antony - he comes to praise McCain and ends up burying him. In devoting the bulk of his article to avoiding what he concedes to be the real issue, Gerson writes,
In the course of a recent article in The Post on McCain's history of anger management issues, former New Hampshire senator Robert Smith claims that McCain's "temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger." The argument seems to be: McCain will get ticked off and invade Iran - or maybe, on a bad day, Canada.
No. The argument seems to be that McCain could get into one of his snits with a world leader (or multiple world leaders), handicapping our nation's diplomacy and coalition-building efforts. Granted, that's not necessarily worse than G.W.'s "I don't care what you think" unilateralism, an approach to the world that also appears to be built on a foundation of narcissism, but that doesn't make it better.

In attempting to reinvent one of McCain's "straight talk" moments, Gerson illustrates this point:
In at least one instance, McCain's temper seems to have clouded his judgment. In February 2000, after being criticized by religious conservatives, McCain gave a very angry speech in Virginia attacking leaders of the religious right as "agents of intolerance," comparing them to Louis Farrakhan, accusing them of having "turned good causes into businesses," calling them "corrupting influences on religion and politics" who "shame our faith, our party and our country." It was a tantrum disguised as a campaign event.
So you see, McCain's reversing his position on "agents of intolerance" wasn't a flip-flop. It was his finally getting over a temper tantrum and grudge. And that process only took him seven years.

Now, I personally disagree with Gerson's reinvention. Anger can cause people to say things "that they don't really mean", but that's usually a matter of degree. Sure, we could interpret this as a parent-child moment, where the child declares (and means) "I hate you" to a parent in a moment of anger or frustration. But we're dealing with grown-ups here, so that's a level of pathology I would prefer not to ascribe to a Presidential candidate. In this context, anger may lead to an exaggeration of the charge - focusing on the bad and minimizing the good - but it would be a remarkable display of immaturity for a man in his mid-sixties, in a fit of pique, to say the opposite of what he meant and adhere to that position for years.

Now, perhaps to Gerson this is a more flattering depiction, or more useful in selling McCain to the religious right, than saying, "He meant what he said, or at least he meant most of it, but now it's politically convenient for him to embrace the leaders he once condemned." But I suspect that's exactly what we're observing. That interpretation is also consistent with McCain's other flip-flops, such as his sudden lack of concern for balancing the budget.

Even as Gerson reinvents McCain's criticism of the religious right as a temper tantrum, he gives us the McCain camp's response to the Washington Post's article on McCain's temper: "the candidate's 'temper is no greater than the average person's' and that the article is '99 percent fiction.'" It's implicit within Gerson's column that he doesn't buy the first part of that argument. But what about the second part - at what point are we going to demand that the straight talking senator stop issuing nebulous denials through his proxies, and directly answer these concerns? Temper tantrums and grudges? "He has no recollection." 100 years of war? "He evaded that question, and he's not going to answer it." (Yes, I know. It's not "we" - the press largely treats McCain with kid gloves.)

Gerson's depiction of McCain's ego suggests that, whatever the role of his temper, McCain doesn't have the temperament to be a good President. My interpretation is less damning of McCain, save perhaps to his image as a straight-talking maverick. But no matter how you slice it, McCain's ego and temper are valid considerations in the coming election.

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