McCain’s Honor: Is It Merit, or Vanity?

This was sent to George Will of the Washington Post regarding his assessment of the quality of John McCain’s honor.

Comments welcome.

Thanks to the reader who shared it.


Mr. Will,

In the final paragraph of your April 6, 2008 column (McCain’s Housing Restraint) you observe …

McCain practices the politics of honor: He thinks that whatever his instincts tell him is honorable must be so and that those who think otherwise are dishonorable. This makes him difficult to deal with but does no other harm, as long as it is kept separate from governing.

The whole problem with the kind of honor Senator McCain arrogates to himself is that it is essential to how he governs.

Honor comes in two forms. One is the estimable kind based upon a demonstration of actual merit. As a POW who refused to take his captor’s offer of early parole and endured years of privation and torture, McCain showed plenty of that.

But there is another kind of honor which is corrupted, and corrupting: Vanity, the pursuit of reputation for reputation’s sake. When used as the mere stalking-horse for conceit, honor degrades into sheer folly. Sadly, this kind of debased honor — camouflaged vainglory — has been a dominant feature of John McCain’s conduct as a politician.

The campaign finance reform bill Senator McCain co-sponsored is widely regarded as inhibiting the freedom of political speech, protecting the tenure of incumbents, and failing in its presumed aim of keeping money out of politics. But, as Senator McCain himself has acknowledged, he supported this measure out of the need to redeem a reputation insulted by association with the Keating Five campaign finance scandal. It was an affair of honor.

In 1998, McCain supported legislation increasing taxes on cigarettes. This was suppose to fund a number of worthy-sounding objectives: more anti-smoking campaigns, more anti-tobacco health studies, more support of state government’s smoking-related health care costs. Of course, this windfall was often used by the states to fund programs that had little to do with smoking abatement and mitigation. And the resulting agreement favored large tobacco companies over smaller producers. But no matter. For McCain, it was an affair of honor.

The income, capital gains and dividend tax rate cuts Senator McCain long opposed encourage economic activity, boost employment, and even increase tax revenues. But Senator McCain’s sense of propriety — or, at least, his reputation for having a sense of propriety — was, until quite recently, seemingly disturbed by the existence of a so-called “wealth gap”. The professed conscience of this maverick was so over-burdened that he could not abide any lessening of the government’s fiscal afflictions upon the comfortable, even though this would do nothing to comfort the afflicted. Many within his party might call this the politics of envy. For McCain, it was an affair of honor.

Of course, as the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination race drew closer, McCain’s qualms about cutting taxes have been conveniently alleviated. Many might call this a unprincipled accommodation to the GOP’s dominant anti-tax sentiment. But McCain’s sense of rectitude will permit no such admission. For him, this fiscal transubstantiation is likewise an affair of honor.

McCain supported the invasion of Iraq. The result has been chaos for Iraq and fiscal ruin for America. Doubling down on this bad bet, the Senator backed the surge that seeks to redeem our position, and is willing that our occupation be maintained for as long a 100 years. McCain is proud of his reputation as an opponent of excessive spending, yet never reconciles the costs of this misadventure with the requirements of fiscal probity. Since this too is an affair of honor, he seems to regard all that as a mere trifle when compared to the demands of national greatness.

As a military officer, John McCain was an honorable man. As a politician, John McCain is also an honorable man.

But note the difference in the quality of honor. As an officer, McCain sacrificed his personal interest for the sake of a necessary and greater good. As a politician, McCain all to often sacrifices the greater good for the sake of maintaining his personal reputation for being honorable.

Such are the ambiguities of honor.


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