It's important to say this right. I understand that John McCain and his supporters take great pride in the maverick qualities by which he seeks to define himself, and to be defined. And there's something extraordinarily attractive about the maverick--the guy who bucks the system, holds feet to the fire, speaks truth to power, all those old cliches. It's a part of the American myth, the archetype that catapulted Ronald Reagan to power--and assures him seemingly everlasting sainthood in the memory of vast numbers of Americans, despite the evidence that suggests, to rational minds, that his true legacy is far from the unmitigated triumph it is made out to be. It also played an important part in the George W. Bush ascent to power--and its catastrophic outcome.
Now comes shoot-from-the-hip McCain, proclaiming his gunslinger credentials, and it's important for us to understand that the dark side of the maverick's willing--perhaps even romantic--embrace of risk is recklessness. The dark side of the fighter pilot's courage is the flyboy's arrogant impulsiveness and fatal attraction for danger. Am I "unpatriotic" in wondering if we yet need to hear the full story of the events that led to the downing of that aircraft in Vietnam, before McCain's much-touted stay at the Hanoi Hilton? Is it irreverent to ask for an accounting of those events, now that this same fighter pilot seeks to be entrusted with the controls in this country's cockpit and make life-or-death decisions for us all, for the next four, perhaps eight years?
These thoughts arise from my observation of McCain and his vaunted willingness to take a risk and, when all else fails, to throw the hail-Mary pass. (Apologies for the mix of metaphors, friends!) Clearly, the latest example of this quality is the choice of Sarah Palin for McCain's vice-presidential running-mate. And this is not, please, about Sarah Palin. I have no reason to disrespect her, although I suspect I would disagree with her on virtually every issue, from birth control and abortion and a woman's right to control her destiny to her disbelief in the human contribution to climate change. It is particularly not about a seventeen-year-old being pregnant and unmarried. No, this is about a man who spends months building political capital on his urgent promotion of the war in Iraq and on his opponent's supposed unpreparedness to handle the dangers that face us in that part of the world; and who then turns around and picks, as his immediate successor in the event of his incapacity, a person who is clearly, indeed dangerously under-qualified in this very area. And this for no other apparent reason than to appease those social and religious conservatives who have mistrusted him, and to poach democratic votes from the angry, disappointed Hillary support group. Oh, and to have a fellow "maverick" on the ticket.
I don't know about you, but I don't want another risk-taker in that office. I admire the quality in less high-stakes situations, but this is not a game of football. We're talking, now, about the task of steering this country back to calmer seas (ouch, those metaphors!) and re-establishing our position in the world, as Teddy Kennedy eloquently put it, by "the power of our example, not the example of our power."
In contrast to the jumpy maverick qualities of John McCain, I see the quiet, forceful approach of Barack Obama. There are those who like to characterize Obama as aloof, unapproachable--not the kind of guy, they say, you'd want to sit down and have a beer with, unlike the current occupant of the White House. They are fooled, I say, into overlooking the one quality we desperately need in our next president: a true, unflappable mental discipline, a clarity and determination that see past the contingencies of the moment and hold fast to the big picture, the need for sanity, mutual respect and justice in the world, if we are to survive the baser aspects of our human nature.
Drawing, as I often do, on my admiration for the teachings of the Buddha, I honor not only Obama's quite extraordinary equanimity, but also the natural ease and clarity with which he embraces "Right Speech"--his steadfast refusal to advance his interests by slandering others, even those who gladly slander him. Who could fail to admire his immediate, forthright and unambiguous response to the current flap over what is, after all, no more than a family matter? I honor the dignity with which he had consistently refused to succumb to those who demand that he descend into the political mire, or risk appearing weak. His acceptance speech, last week, was ample evidence of strength combined with dignity.
Dignity, it's true, is not the most fuzzily "approachable" of qualities. It risks making its wearer seem a bit remote. But we have had ample time to contemplate the results of electing a folksy, scrappy pugilist and undisciplined thinker to hold our highest office and represent us to the world. Isn't it time for the corrective of some quiet balance, some serious forethought in judgment, some intellectual rigor and, yes, some dignity? Do we really need another reckless jolt into a future filled with known and unknown dangers? For myself, in the matter of global politics, I favor predictability over excitement, the dignity of dialogue over the bloody legacy of the sword.