National Commentary

David Brooks: The Character Factor

Rochester, N.H. — About six months ago, I was having lunch with a political consultant and we were having a smart-alecky conversation about the presidential race. All of sudden, my friend interrupted the flow of gossip and said: "You know, there's really only one great man running for president this year, and that's McCain."

The comment cut through the way we pundits normally talk about presidential candidates. We tend to view them like products and base our verdicts on their market share at the moment. We don't so much evaluate their character; we analyze how effectively they are manipulating their image to appeal to voters, and in this way we buy into the artificiality of modern campaigning.

My friend's remark pierced all that, and it had the added weight of truth.

Eight years ago, it was fashionable for us media types to wax rapturously about McCain. That vogue has passed, but I'm afraid my views are unchanged. I have seen McCain when his campaign was imploding, and now again when he's rising in the polls. I have seen him shooting craps and negotiating in the Senate. I have seen him leading delegations like a statesman and bickering with his old Hanoi Hilton prison-mate Bud Day like a crotchety old lady.

And I can tell you there is nobody in politics remotely like him.

The first thing that still strikes one about McCain is his energy. In his book, "The Nightingale's Song," Robert Timberg runs through primal force metaphors to describe the young McCain. "Being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck," Timberg wrote.

Prison in Vietnam gave him self-respect and a cause greater than himself, but it didn't diminish his dynamism. His office in the Senate isn't tucked away in a tranquil corner of his suite; it's right in the vortex, and it's always empty because he's walking around. Campaigning last weekend in New Hampshire, he was his old restless self, never alone, craving contact, conversation and fun.

Timberg wrote that McCain fought against the system at the Naval Academy as if it were some hostile organism, "as if any compromise meant surrendering a part of himself that he might never retrieve."

The years and the Senate have smoothed some of his rebelliousness, but he still fights a daily battle against the soul-destroying forms of modern politics.

If you cover him for a day, you'd better bring 2,500 questions because in the hours he spends with journalists, you will run through all of them. Last Saturday, we talked about Pervez Musharraf's asceticism and Ted Williams' hitting philosophy, the Korean War and Hispanic voting patterns.

He analyzed the debates he won and the times he was wooden. He talked about his failures as a fundraiser and said he'd like to pick a running mate with formal economics training because he's weak in that area. He won't tell you everything, but there will never be a moment as the hours stretch by when you feel that he is spinning you, lying to himself or insulting your intelligence.

Telling the truth is a skill. Those who don't do it habitually lose the ability, but McCain is well-practiced and has the capacity to face unpleasant truths. While other conservatives failed to see how corporations were insinuating themselves into their movement, McCain went after Boeing contracts. While others failed to see the rising tide of corruption around them, McCain led the charge against Jack Abramoff. While others ignored the spending binge, McCain was among the fiscal hawks.

There have been occasions when McCain compromised his principles for political gain, but he was so bad at it that it always backfired. More often, he is driven by an ancient sense of honor, which is different from fame and consists of the desire to be worthy of the esteem of posterity.

Other Republicans used to accuse him of kissing up to the news media. But when the Iraq war was at its worst, and other candidates were hiding in the grass waiting to see how things would turn out, McCain championed the surge, which the major Republican candidates now celebrate.

He did it knowing that it would cost him his media-darling status and probably the presidency. But for years he had hated the way the war was being fought. And when the opportunity to change it came, the only honorable course was to try.

And now he pushes ahead, building momentum, but desperately needing a miracle win in New Hampshire. Everyone will make their own political choices, and you might plausibly argue that the qualities John McCain possesses are not the ones the country now requires. But character is destiny, and you will never persuade me that he is not among the finest of men.

That human point seemed worth remembering, even amid the layers of campaign pretense.

c.2007 New York Times News Service