Politics & Policy

McCain’s Still My Guy

Bush is decent, but he isn't Christ-like.

Marvin Olasky, one of George W. Bush’s main advisers and the author of the “compassionate conservatism” concept, says that the split in right-wing ranks between Bush and McCain is one between worshippers of Christ and worshippers of … Zeus. That’s right: Zeus. The three Zeus worshippers he named outright are William Kristol and David Brooks, of The Weekly Standard, and Frank Rich of the New York Times. These guys all “happen” to be Jewish.

The jokes in conservative, and especially conservative Jewish circles, are endless. “As a Zeus worshipper, I never buy retail.” But most of the jokes aren’t that funny, because few people really get what the hell – oops, sorry – what the Hades, Olasky is talking about. After all, my peeps invented the whole monotheism thing so calling us Zeus worshippers seems a particularly ignorant thing to say. Some people thought that Zeus was a reference to the last reigning pagan religion before Jesus came on the scene. Okay, but so what? Besides, Romans believed in Jupiter, not Zeus. So, what did Olasky mean?

Well, it turns out Olasky wasn’t being anti-Semitic, or at least not intentionally so. The Zeus reference seems to be derived from the ending of Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, in which two of the characters decide to convert to Zeus worship. And what Olasky meant by it was that McCain supporters generally, and Brooks specifically, are attracted to “Zeus-like strength” rather than Christ-like compassion. McCain is all about honor and duty and Bush is about charity and love. Zeus versus Christ. There you have it.

To be honest, I find this to be a self-evidently dumb distinction. Bush is a decent guy, but he isn’t Christ-like, nor would he claim to be – I hope. And, I doubt he would want to concede that he doesn’t revere duty, honor, and other Zeussy attributes. More generally, who wants a Christ-like President of the United States? Charity and compassion are one thing, but turning the other cheek is not always a great attribute for a commander-in-chief. Also, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but there is that whole “render unto Caesar” thing, isn’t there?

Moreover, do we really want to be dragging religion that deeply into political fights? I think the Left has been moronic in its purging of faith from public life, but these are not the terms conservatives should be arguing about. Olasky says Bush foes have “holes in their souls.” He’s a lot smarter than that, or so I had thought.

WHY McCAIN?What makes Olasky’s argument even more strange is that it’s so different from the usual fare we get from Bush supporters or McCain foes. Indeed, generally it’s the McCainiacs who have the soft, semi-literary arguments and it’s the Bushies who invoke hard arguments about tax breaks (Mammon worshippers for Bush!) or how he’s our best bet for regaining power (Nietzscheans for GW!). The McCain people are the ones dripping with patriotic pablum. In short, the Bush-McCain argument has transpired in two different languages, one speaking policy, the other poetry. Bush people talk politics and the McCain people talk patriotism. Normally, I side with the policy over the poetry. Indeed, that’s why so many people are giving me such a nasty time for supporting McCain, which I will admit the Arizona Senator has made more difficult in the last week. I can’t disagree with much in National Review’s excellent editorial on the subject [Link defunct]. Many of McCain’s boosters have simply been mischievous. And the McCain campaign itself has been reckless, both in its handling of its own fortunes as well as with the party it ostensibly calls home.


But I’m not giving up on him – yet. Why? Well, my view that McCain is the better general-election Republican candidate for the Fall remains unchanged. But beyond that, what is it that is so appealing about the man that makes hard-hearted troglodytic Right-Wingers like me support him?

I hate to say it, because it makes me sound, well, like the kind of guy who would say this sort of thing, but I think a big part of it is manliness. And not just mere manliness, but Great Manliness. In the 1980s Chris Matthews popularized the idea that the Republicans were the Daddy party and the Democrats were the Mommy party. I’ve since learned that Matthews was re-packaging a pretty old idea. Robert Frost, for example, once said “The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother is always a Democrat.” Still, the idea remains true. Dad protects you and sets standards of conduct. Mommy forgives and nurtures. For decades we wanted a Republican president and a Democratic Congress because we like a President who can send people to their rooms without dinner and we like a Congress which will sneak us dessert when nobody’s looking.

Over time, things changed. Bill Clinton seemed to turn the Democrats into the un-wed Mommy party, a little stricter than before but totally convinced it could do everything on its own. This is why Bill Clinton is in many ways the least manly president in American history. There may have been plenty of dandified sissy-presidents, but we didn’t see so much of them. And even they felt compelled to appear manly in their public utterances and actions. With Clinton we are saturated with his whininess, his lip-biting, his assurances that he is working so hard. He is such a self-indulgent sissy one wonders why he isn’t pock-marked from years of locker-room rattails. As Noemie Emery pointed out recently in The Weekly Standard, Bill Clinton made a bigger show out of his injured knee than FDR did about his crippling polio.

When it comes to foreign affairs, Clinton is even less manly. He has spent much of his administration apologizing to countries because he is ashamed that America ever acted in a manly way (see G-File 11/23/99 and G-File 3/11/99).

I know many of us, Bush and McCain supporters alike, are sick of all that. Of course, the Bushies honestly believe that GW is a sharp break with Clintonism, and in the most obvious ways he would be. But at the same time, for some reason, the Bushies are untroubled by the more womanly attributes of Bushism. As I argued on Monday, “compassionate conservatism” is not an alternative to Clintonism, it is a version of it.

Meanwhile McCain seems, to some of us, to be a historic break with the past generally, and not just with the Clinton years. Since JFK (who, by the way, I think was a pretty mediocre Chief Executive), American Presidents have seemed to be more Republican or Democrat than, well, American. When you look back at Presidents like Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or any of the Founding Fathers, their partisan connection seems like an academic issue. They were our ass-kicking, Constitution-writing, Union-saving, trust-busting, head-and-hearts-wired-together for some full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice American Presidents.

Ronald Reagan recognized how much America craved to have that sort of leadership again. He knew we wanted Big Men in the Oval Office. But, God love him, Reagan was playing a part. In many ways that made him better than any alternative. He played his role heroically, without hesitation or equivocation. Reagan believed in his mission, and that made people believe in him. But he was still playing a part.

McCain is a lesser politician than Ronald Reagan, but he has the opportunity to be a more Reaganesque figure. Not, alas, in the policy sense, or even in the Republican sense, but in the American sense. McCain is the sort of guy Ronald Reagan loved to play in the movies – which is why the Gipper liked McCain so much. Many loyal Republicans see McCain’s appeal to liberals and Democrats as a sign of his unreliability. Others see it as a sign of his authenticity.

Karl Rove, Bush’s right-hand man, was saluted as a genius most of last year for adopting the “McKinley Model.” The only problem is that nobody give a rat’s ass about McKinley. If there is one in a million children who said, “I want to be president — just like William McKinley,” I would be amazed. Hell, I’d be amazed if one in a million kids knew who William McKinley was. On the other hand, McCain is trying for the Roosevelt model and the Reagan creed. He is trying to be a great-man president.


I could actually go on for quite a while but we are already running way too long. So, we’ll pick up on this next week after McCain triumphs in the Super Tuesday primaries. First thing I want to do is apologize to my colleagues at National Review. Recently, I have suggested or stated that NR is a hotbed of in-the-tank Bush supporters and that I am the only one not supporting. It has been made very clear to me that this is not the case. I should not have spoken for my colleagues without polling them. NR is a big place with a lot of ideologically, intellectually and politically diverse people working there. When they all say things as a group, it’s called an “editorial” and nothing else. So my apologies to the whole gang.

Second, to the scores of people who think that I somehow have control of my mother’s website Lucianne.com, I do not. My mom slaps my hand when I try to eat food off the stove before it’s ready; what do you think she’d do if I mucked around with her website?

Nonetheless, I am pleased to announce it is back in operation, so please stop hounding me.

Speaking of my mother, NR Dear Leader (as they say in the Korean-language edition) Rich Lowry was on momma G’s radio show the other day. It was sort of like having a parent-teacher conference broadcast over the airwaves. Anyway, Rich promised listeners that my article on the Westminster Dog Show was on the site. It wasn’t. It is now. Click here.

Indeed, much of the stuff from the new issue of National Review is up on the site now, including Jay Nordlinger’s excellent cover story on Al “Can I get extra cheese on that?” Sharpton.

And lastly, for all of the readers who – often cruelly – mock John McCain by saying he’s no hero because he got captured, click here for my response [Link defunct].


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