If you read Jeffrey Goldberg's excellent piece on McCain in the new Atlantic, one fact stands out clearly. McCain's stance on the war is inviolate--it involves what for him are principles of honor that stretch back immediately and directly to his own experiences in the Vietnam war, and to those of his father in World War II. Just one example of many in the first-rate article:
I told Swindle [a cellmate and friend of McCain's] that McCain had argued to me that he doesn’t think about Vietnam overly much when he thinks about the wars of today.
“Bullshit,” Swindle said. “He’ll say Vietnam didn’t affect him, that he doesn’t think about it, that he’s aloof from it. But I see it. It’s there.”
This is the issue on which McCain is inflexible, certain, fully invested, passionate.
It is equally clear that as a result, he views all other issues as malleable, political issues--stances that can be easily taken, and easily changed, tactically-- in order to win a campaign and thus deal with the issue that, to him, matters.
This is utterly clear in his choice of Palin, where his Vietnam-and-since cynicism about political necessities is manifest--one of feeding the bread and circuses desire of the electorate, giving them, so easily fooled, as they were so easily fooled by the media in Vietnam, what they need, in order to be able to deal with the important issue. The choice of a remarkably unqualified Vice Presidential choice is simply a political necessity. The attitude towards the public, and the media, in this choice, as in many of the public representations and statements of his campaign, is one of an extraordinary, world-weary, cynicism: Feed the beast with whatever fantasies and half-truths it takes. We'll take care of it later.
In my conversations with McCain, however, he never appeared greatly troubled by his shifts and reversals. It’s not difficult to understand why: tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor—two notions that for McCain are thoroughly entwined—that he becomes truly unbending.
This is no doubt rooted in McCain's eternal certainties, drummed in by three generations of such certainty. And there is no doubt strength and decency--as well as these "family values"--that drive this commitment to an ideological core.
The question is this: Do we need another president with such a core of ideological inflexibility, rigidity and unwillingness for self-reflection, linked to a long past conflict--and who is willing to resort to half-truths, deceptions, and distortions in its service?