The G-File

Politics & Policy

On the Road Again

Sen. John McCain in Mexico City, Mexico, in 2016 (Henry Romero/Reuters)
How John McCain's sometimes infuriating convictions were ultimately driven by his sense of honor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including all of the citizens of the World who should take equal pride in Neil Armstrong’s accomplishments. Thank you, Belize!),

I’m writing this from the passenger seat of a Winnebago heading East out of Burns, Ore. — which was named after the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, not the chinless wonder from M*A*S*H. Which reminds me, why didn’t the “H” in M*A*S*H get an asterisk? That always bothered me.

Burns looks like it’s seen better days, but it still appears much nicer than the neighboring “city,” Hines, Ore., at least from what we could tell (Burns’s taxidermist shops seem much more professional and less like the guy inside would be perfectly happy to stuff and mount a pseudo-intellectual demi-Jewish pundit from the Upper West Side). We stopped in Burns for the coffee, as one does, and to switch drivers. I got us from Bend to Burns and the Fair Jessica will take us into Boise. We didn’t plan on only stopping in places that begin with B, but that’s just one of the great things about the road: the serendipity of it all.

John McCain, RIP

John McCain is being held in state today and lain to rest Saturday. We intend to listen to the memorial service as we drive. I wrote a column earlier this week on McCain and Trump and the differences between them. It was one of those columns that was like pulling teeth for me to write because I had vacationitis and it’s hard to get back into pundit mode, particularly from an inconvenient time zone.

An additional point I wanted to make is that, while the differences between Trump and McCain are obvious and profound, they originate from an important similarity. I am honestly not sure what word best describes it: Vanity? Ego? Pride?

It’s worth recalling that McCain’s obsession with campaign-finance reform stemmed largely from his experience in the Keating Five scandal in the late ’80s. The details don’t really matter; McCain was cleared of all charges. But he felt that his involvement — even his mere association — with the scandal was a stain on his honor, and he spent the following decades trying to repair that wound to his reputation by becoming an obsessive on the issue of campaign finance.

Doubtless, he believed in the cause he fought for, but the passion he brought to campaign-finance reform was born of a certain kind of old-fashioned vanity that ranked personal honor higher than the mere facts or abstract principle.

One can find other examples of this sort of thing in McCain’s record, which is why McCain the politician could annoy so many conservatives. He loved being a “maverick,” and if you could convince him he was being a maverick in a moral cause, that’s all it took for him to become a bulldog. Sometimes he picked the right cause — the most obvious example being the Surge in Iraq — but sometimes he’d go a different way or he’d be so caught up with the narrative that he’d ignore some relevant facts (not every rebel in Syria or Libya was a “freedom fighter” for instance).

I don’t want to belabor the point, because anyone familiar with his history on the right knows what I’m talking about. McCain was deeply enamored with heroic narratives, no doubt in part because that was the story of his own life. The problem is that not every public-policy issue fits neatly into a good-vs.-evil framework, and McCain sometimes allowed himself a definition of heroism that won praise from the crowd that always celebrates when a conservative confirms liberal prejudices.

I don’t mean this to sound too harsh, or even harsh at all. I admired McCain a great deal. I certainly have no desire to lend aid and comfort to the swamp-dwelling ogres sending me bilious nonsense about how McCain was an “evil” man, while also saying that Donald Trump is a righteous instrument of Jesus.

Oh the Byrony

Which brings us to Trump. I will pay you the courtesy of presumed sentience and not run you through all of the evidence that the president has his own kind of vanity (nor will I go to any great lengths to demonstrate that the president is bipedal, an only slightly more obvious observation).

But whereas McCain’s vanity was invested in his commitment to certain ideals (or narratives) — patriotism, heroism, sacrifice, courage, etc. — Trump’s vanity is invested closer to home, as it were, to his ego. I’m not sure one could even describe him as a Byronic hero, because even the Byronic hero plays by his own rules, and it’s not obvious that Trump has many rules at all (and for the umpteen billionth time, I am not making these observations out of animus towards Trump; I’ve been writing about things such as “do-it-yourself morality, informed by personal passion rather than old-fogey morality” for quite a while).

While I think both men could be led astray by their vanity, I am not making a moral-equivalence argument. McCain was courageous; Trump is not, save for the fact that being shameless can be liberating — one is willing to risk embarrassment if one is incapable of being embarrassed. McCain subordinated himself to the needs of his country and his fellow POWs. As a senator, he visited war zones countless times, not to preen but to support the troops and their mission. Our commander in chief has yet to visit one. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point,” C. S. Lewis wrote.

What I find interesting is how both men represent the way vanity, ego, pride, amour propre (I’m still looking for the right word) can take people in such different directions. Every politician has a robust ego or high self-regard, but the test is in what issues or causes they invest that ego — in themselves or in a cause.

I think David Hume’s famous line about how “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions,” is often misunderstood. Hume certainly believed in reason. He simply understood that reason is a tool that must be made to further higher ends. We cannot scrub our passions from the crooked timber of humanity; we can only channel them productively.

McCain’s egoistic passion led him to surrender himself to the faith of his fathers, or a cause larger than himself, as he might put it. Trump’s egoistic passion is dedicated to making himself as large a cause as possible. The irony is that the former’s approach made McCain seem the larger man, while the latter gets smaller by the day.

Various & Sundry

This is the third G-File in a row written literally — and, I suppose, figuratively — at about 70 miles per hour. The feedback from long-time readers has mostly been along the lines of “Why does it take me so long to read? Do I have a disability?” Other readers familiar with this sub-genre of my “news”letter oeuvre understand where I am coming from. But some complained, either to me or on Twitter.

“It’s just a stream of consciousness!” they yell at me as if I were their waiter at a fancy French restaurant and I talked them into ordering the snails instead of those toasted cheese sandwiches they wanted. “Sir, there is a discussion of assless chaps in my absolutely free newsletter no one forced me to read! How dare you!”

So let me explain to folks who are new around here: Theyre all streams of consciousness.

Speaking of streams, about 15 minutes ago, we passed the sign for Stinkwater Creek and just now we passed the sign for Drinkwater Pass. Call me crazy but I think these things are way too close to each other.

Where was I? Oh right: Theyre ALL streams of consciousness! (Imagine me yelling this with veins bulging out of my neck like Mugatu sending back a frothy latte or Howard Dean revving up his followers after losing the Iowa caucuses or, come to think of it, the image of Dean sending back a frothy latte works well too). I write about 50 G-Files per year. Some are serious. Some are jocular. Some are like a centaur except where the top half is a grizzly bear and the bottom half is an electric AMC Pacer.

“That makes no sense,” you say.

Well, I have two responses to that: First, I know that the Pacer was never an electric car. And B) Forget it — it’s Chinatown. The point is that out of the 50 “news”letters I write every year, I might start one or two earlier in the morning than is their due. And when people tell me I can’t right goodly or that I’m not smaht based on this thing, I feel like they’re the little kid from Airplane! and I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “Listen kid, tell your old man to pound out this many nouns and verbs every Friday morning after drinking as much as I do the night before . . .”

Anyway, next week, we’ll get back to normal, which I am sure will be a great relief to the people who like pull-my-finger jokes and Chesterton quotes at a safer speed.

Canine Update: Oh man, oh Manoshevitz, are the dogs going to be bummed when we get to the acridly effulgent atmosphere of Washington, D.C. While the humans had a good time, the beasts had a truly great vacation, save for the fact that it’s not clear that they understood it was a vacation. I suspect they think this is our new life now: Long trips in the moving dog den, punctuated by strange beds and thrilling sorties into wild lands full of intoxicating sniffs and excellent places to get exhausted.

This trip definitely had the biggest effect on Zoë. Pippa was just like, “Oh this is a much better place to chase a ball (or stick). Why don’t we come here more often?” But for Zoë, it was like a switch had been flipped. She’s much more like the wild — and wildly jealous — dog she was a few years ago. We shared a house with my brother-in-law and their kids and their chocolate lab, Penny (who’s a lovely singer by the way). Zoë spent days keeping Penny from getting close to either me or Jessica or her food bowl — or Pippa’s. In other words, her position was: “These humans, their affections, and their food stores are mine, strange dog!”

The problem is that Penny, being a chocolate lab, is such a happy-go-lucky girl that she’d forget there was any conflict every ten minutes or so.

Penny: “Oh Hello, Hooman, would you like to pat me or maybe throw a ball?”

<cue “Flight of the Valkyrie” music> Enter flying snarling Dingo: “Away Canadian interloper!” (Penny’s actually from Washington State, but that’s not how Zoë sees it. She’s a bit of a nativist).

Repeat.

There were remarkably fewer tensions outdoors, though. Zoë didn’t want much to do with Penny outside, but she wasn’t a big concern. When you add in the thrill of being able to swim in cold, clean water, chase varmints, wake up to brisk weather, and go on very long hikes with the whole Goldberg pack, I think the girls had a grand time.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

This week’s (first) Remnant

Wednesday’s column

Thursday’s GLoP/Remnant

Friday’s column

And now, the weird stuff.

Lazy crocodile

Parasite vs. parasite

Three ways to destroy the universe

Canada’s mystery lights

How to make a water rocket

Artists with their dogs

The Mall to Y’all water tower

Giant Everglade snakes coming . . .

The surprising sex lives of Neanderthals

When rhinos roamed Washington State

When was the earliest Internet search?

Actual combat footage of the Battle of the Philippines Sea

St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster

Nazi Germany’s most deadly fighter ace

Florida man arrested for tranquilizing and raping alligators

Florida political candidate says alien abduction doesn’t define her

Clever dog plays fetch with itself

Placebos . . . work?

Man accused of taunting bison sentenced to 130 days in jail

Security guard films all of his flatulence for six months

Sexually frustrated dolphin ruins French beach

Wasps getting drunk, going on stinging rampages

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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