When people talk about character, I often think of an underrated movie that hit the big screen fifteen years ago. "Hero" starred Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, and Andy Garcia, and it was, in many ways, the sort of manipulative, overly dramatic multi-star vehicle that I usually hate. Truth be told, I hate most movies. But there was something about this particular film that grabbed me.
If you haven't seen it, I suppose I should include a spoiler alert here, though I doubt it's necessary. Anyhow, consider yourself warned: if you read further, I'm going to give away the plot. Hoffman's character, a middle-aged, self-centered ne'er-do-well, finds himself at the scene of an airplane crash and, at at no small personal risk, forces open one of the doors and saves several lives, including that of TV reporter Davis. He then proceeds on his bitter way, only to learn that a homeless guy (Garcia) has taken credit for the feat. Cleaned up, our faux hero not only possesses the youthful, leading man looks that people want to see in their idols, but also acts the part of the reflexive Good Samaritan, unlike Hoffman, who remains an angry, broken man, resentful at Garcia, but unwilling to step forward.
The movie kind of fizzles out in the end, providing the sort of pat Hollywood ending that sends viewers home happy. Nevertheless, I am still attracted by the original suggestion that what we call character may in fact be episodic and that, from time to time, heroes can be flawed men and flawed men can be heroes. Because that's the way real life works, too. In defending his corrupt buddy, Duke Cunningham, the execrable Duncan Hunter argued that his fellow San Diegan's crimes were mitigated by his heroism as a Navy flyer in Vietnam. The argument did not prevail—Cunningham's corruption turned out to be comprehensive and bone-deep—but the fact that Hunter even made the case was telling.
John McCain, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, is no Duke Cunningham. But he did have his moment in the unwanted spotlight back around the same time as "Hero" was reaching the theaters. McCain was a member of the Keating Five, an ethically challenged quintet of U.S. Senators who, after taking campaign contributions from Charles Keating, the head of a shady savings and loan association, tried to intervene on Mr. Keating's behalf with the federal agency regulating his business. McCain's wife and father had personal investments in Keating properties, and the senator himself made at least nine free airplane trips, with family in tow, at the businessman's expense (only refunded by McCain after everything hit the fan).
When Keating's California-based Lincoln Savings and Loan and its parent corporation collapsed, "more than 21,000 mostly elderly investors lost their life savings, in total about $285 million" (Wikipedia). Congressional investigations followed, and the five senators were roundly criticized for their actions. Only two political careers survived: those of "American heroes" John Glenn and John McCain.
McCain, of course, did his penance by becoming a leading supporter of campaign finance reform. To his credit, his efforts continued despite the fire they drew from Republican and conservatives groups that argued that any limitation on contributions constituted a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. To be sure, McCain's proposals fell far short of revolutionary—it's not as though he ever championed full public financing of federal elections. Nevertheless, he spent significant political capital on the issue, and the hard feelings caused by these efforts may yet block his path to the Republican presidential nomination.
John McCain showed enormous physical bravery during his years as a captive of the North Vietnamese government. The torture he endured would break most of us. When offered a chance for early release ahead of prisoners who had been held longer (the Communists wanted to embarrass the future senator's admiral father), McCain refused and was treated even more harshly as a consequence.
Reporters and pundits, in their assessments of McCain, repeatedly speak of his character, generally referencing his wartime experience. "Prison in Vietnam," says David Brooks of the New York Times, "gave [McCain] self-respect and a cause greater than himself…" That is no doubt true, but less than twenty years later, his actions in the Keating scandal suggested that the senator still had no trouble looking out for Number One.
And what of the senator's celebrated maverick streak? While McCain does take several positions in opposition to his party's wishes, his voting record is, on the whole, that of a doctrinaire conservative. It is not all that different from the record of, say, Trent Lott. Mike Huckabee is, in that sense, a whole lot more of a Republican maverick than John McCain will ever be, though Huckabee will never be fitted with the label. Most telling of all, after losing the 2000 GOP nomination to George W. Bush in a particularly nasty campaign, McCain embraced (literally and figuratively) the new president, a man's whose own flawed character must have been unmistakably clear to him. McCain, despite his commitment to "a cause greater than himself", did so in the service of his own political ambitions.
None of this, except for the Keating part, makes John McCain any worse than all the other politicians out there. But nobody else is treated by the working press as a living saint, a man of tested and undeniable character. McCain's Vietnam is experience is one—but only one—important piece of information in judging the whole man. His Reagan-era scandal is another. Like the Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia characters in "Hero", McCain is, like all of us, an individual of many facets, some heroic and some venal.
The human mind often seeks simplistic solutions to complicated choices. We attempt to summarize with labels in an effort to minimize our decision making efforts. In politics, we look to "character" as if it were a single, identifiable trait like baldness or left-handedness. People, however, are a collection of traits and decisions and impulses, egos competing with ids competing with superegos. The mix is important, but it is always a mix. That is true even in the case of a man who suffered valiantly in the Hanoi Hilton nearly forty years ago.