WHEN HE ran for president eight years ago, John McCain was asked by an interviewer what he thought of the Confederate flag — a touchy topic in South Carolina, where at the time a debate was raging over whether the banner should continue to fly above the state capitol.
McCain answered from the heart: "As we all know, it's a symbol of racism and slavery." But his reply infuriated many South Carolina voters, and after the interview McCain's aides pushed him to undo the damage. So he let them draft a statement "clarifying" his position, and when reporters asked him about the flag in the days that followed, he made a show of pulling the paper from his pocket and reading his revised remarks. "As to how I view the flag," it began, "I understand both sides." It went on to acknowledge that some people may deem the flag "a symbol of slavery" — McCain's original, authentic opinion — but that "personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."
By the fourth or fifth time the question came up, McCain later wrote in his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For (coauthored with Mark Salter), he could have delivered the new response from memory.
"But I persisted with the theatrics of unfolding the paper and reading it as if I were making a hostage statement. I wanted to telegraph reporters that I really didn't mean to suggest I supported flying the flag, but political imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president. I think that made the offense worse. Acknowledging my dishonesty with a wink didn't make it less a lie. It compounded the offense. . . .
"I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable. All my heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me."
Now try, if you can, to imagine Hillary Clinton writing those words. Or Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee. Is it conceivable that John Edwards, who fiercely indicts the moral shortcomings of others, would ever speak so bluntly and harshly about his own? Would Ron Paul? Would Barack Obama? Among America's leading politicians, I cannot think of any who is so forthright about his own failings, or so willing to let the world see him struggle with his conscience.
Now McCain's second presidential campaign is in the midst of a remarkable revival. A few months ago, he was down and nearly out, his poll numbers plummeting and his bank account depleted. Today he is closing in on the New Hampshire lead, just 3 percentage points behind front-runner Mitt Romney, according to the latest Boston Globe poll. An impressive collection of odd journalistic bedfellows — the liberal Globe and Des Moines Register, the conservative Boston Herald and Manchester Union-Leader, even the University of Iowa's Daily Iowan — have all endorsed the Arizona senator. McCain even has the blessing of Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2000. Highly opinionated and controversial politicians do not normally win support from such disparate regions of the philosophical map. If the slogan weren't so tarnished, McCain could rightly claim to be running for the White House as a uniter, not a divider.
"I had not just been dishonest," wrote John McCain in his memoir. "I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable."
In the Globe's new poll, one finding caught my eye. When asked which candidate they thought "most trustworthy," 30 percent of likely Republican voters chose McCain - the highest tally of any candidate, Republican or Democrat. Among Republicans, only Romney, at 23 percent, comes anywhere near McCain's rating on trustworthiness. But the two men's numbers have been moving in opposite directions. The more voters get to know the candidates, the less they trust Romney and the more they trust McCain.
I'm not surprised. Not because I imagine that McCain walks on water. He is plainly a flawed human being with a skeleton or two in his closet. But he strives to heed the better angels of his nature — and he lets us see the striving. A politician who can publicly berate himself for being "dishonest" and "a coward" is a politician voters are more apt to trust. A once and future presidential hopeful who owns up to his own moral lapses and can write, with sincerity, "All my heroes . . . would have been ashamed of me," is no ordinary candidate.
And if there is one thing American politics badly needs these days, it is no ordinary candidate.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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