Column: Out on a Limb: Slow-motion tragedy
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Sen. John McCain, center, visits the popular Shorja market in central Baghdad, Iraq, April 1. McCain has charged that the American people aren't getting a "full picture" of progress in the security crackdown in the capital. (AP photo)
John McCain (R)
Senator, AZ
Born: 08/29/1936
Birthplace: Panama Canal Zone
Home: Phoenix, AZ
Religion: Episcopalian
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"Life isn't fair."

Think about what Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona has said often about twists of personal and political fate. It's rare for any politician, much less a serious presidential candidate, to talk about the downside of fate. It's too philosophical, too metaphysical and open to much interpretation and therefore beyond the grasp of spin to keep the context safe. You can't keep to a consistent message of hope, redemption and political seduction when you insert the variable of fate into the equation. Voters aren't interested in the dynamics of tragedy.

Of course, when it comes to life and political fortunes not being fair, nobody knows better than McCain. In the 2000 primary campaign, he was the media darling and favorite of independents and Democrats looking to vote for a Republican. In that campaign, he didn't disguise much his disdain for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whom he considered a lightweight and worse.

The driver of the 2000 Straight Talk Express ran a chaotic and exuberant insurgent campaign. The former Vietnam War Navy fighter pilot who spent more than five years in North Vietnam POW hell said a lot of funny things and made many serious and insightful points about the political corruption in Washington, D.C., along the way. He talked of reform, of fighting the establishment (in this case, the right-wing Republican establishment and its Democratic enablers), of being a movie hero figure, a Luke Skywalker fighting the Evil Empire and running a campaign unafraid of losing.

I wasn't the only reporter who caught McCain's routine in the spring of 1999, when the express was an often-empty van and McCain was accessible and endlessly quotable about every subject. I wasn't the only one who thought to myself, "Wait until the voters start paying attention and get a taste of this." By comparison, Bush ran a lackluster, entitlement effort - I'm entitled and you're not - in New Hampshire, and it was only after McCain won the primary convincingly did Bush wake up. The Bush slime machine went into action in South Carolina. Bush was transformed overnight into a "reformer with results" and, in the background, there were whispers that McCain had fathered a black child, his wife was a drug addict, and that McCain was, well, just slightly crazy. It was vicious and it led to eventual victory for the entitled one. "Life isn't fair."

In a painful and ironical twist of history, McCain's current political fortunes are tied to Bush again, only this time it's by choice. There's one issue and one issue only that dominates everything, and it's Iraq and McCain has become the war's biggest, most credible supporter. When I talked to McCain last month, I was jarred not by his optimism about the war, but by his Straight Talk enthusiasm that he was right and he could convince voters he was right. It was a curious mix of determination and fatalism.

"Life isn't fair," he told me about the fact that he was right about Bush administration's incompetence as far back as 2002.

Given the history, the Bush-McCain alliance is a strange one. The problem for McCain today is that a growing number of Americans don't take Bush seriously anymore because he looks and sounds with each passing day like he's auditioning for a sequel to "The Madness of King George." It's odd that McCain, who blistered the administration from the beginning for mismanaging the war badly, for not having enough troops to do the job and often mocked the rosy tales of progress spun by the war's supporters, has fallen into the same trap of viewing Iraq through a tight American prism.

McCain has talked of certain areas of Baghdad being as safe as any calm neighborhood in America and tried to prove it by taking a much-publicized stroll in a market while being accompanied by a protective military shield of infantry and air support. He later said he misspoke - just as he did when he said American lives had been "wasted" in Iraq to David Letterman - but the damage to his credibility was done. He has emphasized small signs of security progress being seen in Baghdad, while violence has increased in other areas not being reinforced by the surge. He has taken the Bush low road by criticizing Democrats and their motives for their legitimate congressional attempts to change the open-ended path of the war. He has even taken on the media for not telling the whole story. McCain's short fuse, which has been in full view all along, is beginning to burn.

In a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, McCain talked of honor, moral obligation and the reasons why we can't leave Iraq. He sounded very Bush- like when he said it was important to prevent "the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists, similar to Afghanistan before 9/11." But what was lacking in an otherwise eloquent speech in defense of the war - and a very personal one for McCain whose son is soon to be deployed in Iraq as a Marine - was a sense of proportion, even a hint that this war can't be won militarily, that the American occupation contributes more to the instability and violence than any problems it might solve. Is McCain really saying that only the true believers in the correctness of the war are the only ones who truly understand the stakes and can provide the determined solution? Does he really believe that men like Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Vietnam War Marine Corps officer - whose Marine son has already been deployed to Iraq - is a brainwashed cut-and-runner?

Like Bush, McCain is speaking to a decreasing parish. Disillusionment with the Iraq war of no end has grown far beyond the usual suspects. Consider this canary in a coal mine, which has far-reaching implications beyond the war itself. A Boston Globe story from last week revealed, according to military statistics, that a staggering 46 percent of the West Point Class of 2001 had left the Army by the end of 2006 after their terms of service were met. These were highly trained officers groomed for careers and leadership responsibilities, most specifically in times of war.

Early in primary season, McCain is struggling in the polls and fund-raising. Despite his history here, McCain is going to have a tough struggle in New Hampshire because of his frequent clashes with the conservative base - he's worked to make amends - and the fact that the war has turned off independents as fast as Democrats. I've had longtime Republicans tell me they are disillusioned with Bush, the war and the current slate of GOP candidates. Even committed Republicans have told me of their dissatisfaction with the war and its corrosive impact on the party's fundamental messages of national security, low taxes and limited government.

Like Vietnam, Iraq has become a black hole swallowing up incompetent ambitions and good intentions alike - a slow-motion Greek tragedy in which John McCain has become a flawed, central character.

"Life isn't fair."

Political columnist Michael McCord is opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Herald.




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