McCain’s new book, again written with Salter’s help, is Worth The Fighting For. Sad to say, it does not quite measure up to its predecessor. The reason is obvious, and beyond his control: He simply doesn’t have as good a story to tell. This book is about his service in government. Rare indeed is the political experience that is the dramatic peer of surviving the Hanoi Hilton.
But a leading senator’s account of his 20-odd years in Congress–that should still be good, right? Unfortunately, not that good. McCain in this book is discreet and generous and ostentatiously fair-minded. These are admirable qualities in a leader, but less valuable to a memoirist. McCain criticizes the congressional big spenders who sneak pork-barrel appropriations into legislation, but names no names. He says nice things about Mitch McConnell. He compliments President Bush. He many, many times refers to heated discussions with people, and to outbursts of temper that have come back to haunt him, but he never goes back to the videotape. Whatever returns to haunt McCain in the future isn’t going to be anything written here. McCain speaks about pretty nearly everyone with at least the same faint, proper warmth that in-laws manage to summon for one another at wedding rehearsal dinners and post-funeral receptions. Only once in these nearly 400 pages does McCain threaten to break out, after the two or so pages in which he brings a barely concealed disdain upon defense secretary Mc-Namara’s lately recorded regrets about Vietnam. But McCain stops before his contempt can fully flower. Too bad. I bet seeing one of McCain’s eruptions is captivating, if viewed at a safe remove.
Won’t McCain fans find a few good battles where their man comes out the hero? Fewer than you’d think. The chapter on McCain’s contribution to normalizing relations with Vietnam is a good one, as is the one on campaign finance reform. But there’s a big chapter about the Senate’s rejection of the nomination of John Tower as defense secretary. Tower was McCain’s friend and mentor, which explains why this piece of ancient history is revisited. There is a long, exquisitely detailed chapter on the Keating Five matter, in which McCain takes the opportunity to present without interruption his side of things. He’s entitled–it’s his book–but it’s not exciting reading. There is a long chapter on the events in the Balkans during the Clinton years, a lot of broccoli to ingest just so McCain can get us into the Senate chamber while he and Bob Dole are engineering a resolution to support the introduction of American peacekeeping forces into the region. This dramatic-enough moment is enhanced in McCain’s presentation when Dole rises to speak in favor of the resolution, and the venerable World War II vet discloses that he had for years worn McCain’s POW bracelet–something that McCain did not know until then. At almost the same moment we’re getting all teary-eyed at the bond between these men, we’re reminded that instead of supporting Dole for president, McCain was backing Phil Gramm. One does not have to have a low opinion of Gramm’s politics to wonder why the hell McCain thought Gramm–a turtley sourpuss who looks like he never left a big tip in his life–had the right stuff to be president.
Even in the last part of the book, which recounts McCain’s underdog drive for the GOP nomination in 2000, McCain avoids looking too much the hero. He twice reminds us that while campaigning in South Carolina he ducked the chance to say he didn’t think the Confederate flag belonged atop the state capitol. Give McCain credit for ‘fessing up to such weak-kneed expediency, but geez–what good are doomed heroes when they don’t display doomed heroism?
The book does have heroes. McCain includes chapters on his personal heroes–Theodore Roosevelt, Billy Mitchell, Ted Williams, Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, Marlon Brando’s Zapata in Viva Zapata! These sketches, I suppose, serve the same purpose as the stories of McCain’s father and grandfather served in the first book, and in the same way, the best of them are about men he knew well, Congressman Mo Udall and the Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach. And while there’s something delightful about hearing a political person enthuse about ballplayers and novels and movies, these sketches, like the book on the whole, suffers from a certain windyness. Faith of My Fathers, apart from being a compelling dramatic story, was a very well-written one, composed of strong sentences anchored in detailed, personal, well-observed reminiscences, altogether as sturdy as a Shaker barn. Worth The Fighting For is frequently platitudinous.
For my money, though, the worst part about this sequel is that it seems unlikely to be followed by another–the one about McCain’s White House days. McCain all but foreswears another run in this book, and before we argue that in 2008 he’d still be younger than Reagan was in 1980, let’s realize that by then, his moment may have passed. We have very recently seen a day when America was embroiled in a great crisis, and the times called for a leader who had rhetorical gifts and a fighting spirit and a bipartisan approach and an ethic of service and unquestionable personal credibility. That was the moment for President McCain. But the job was filled.