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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Viva Obama!

“McCain? There’s no difference between him and Bush!”

That reaction to the mere mention of John McCain’s name confirmed that Barrack Obama’s brilliant campaign had been effective even in the wilds of southwest Ireland. Even my neighbor down there had no doubt that McCain was George W. Bush’s 100 percent genetic clone, if not actually the same man in a disguise. Informed people know better, but it bothers me that a lot of people around the world know no more about McCain than what they heard first-hand and second-hand from the Obama campaign.

Now that the election is safely over (I know, you wish the campaign could go on a couple more months, but all good things must come to an end), I want to say some nice things about McCain. I made a conscious decision at the birth of this web site that, although I knew I couldn’t stay away from politics, I did not want it to be partisan. I cherish both my readers, and I would hate to lose either one of them. But now that it doesn’t really matter anymore, I want to come to McCain’s personal defense.

John McCain is not the same as George W. Bush, regardless of what you may think of either man. During the Vietnam war, while Bush was ensconced in the relative safety of the Texas National Guard (and Obama was a child), McCain was risking his life and undergoing torture in the service of his country. While Bush was always eager to get along with his political colleagues and run up huge spending deficits, McCain was always quick to annoy and anger his fellow Republicans with (sometimes overly) principled stands. While Bush was willing to tolerate rough treatment of terrorists in U.S. custody McCain, drawing on painful personal experience, opposed anything that fit his definition of torture. While Bush saw no problem cutting taxes and increasing spending, McCain greatly annoyed the president and many of his colleagues by voting against the Bush tax cuts because there were not offsetting spending cuts. While Bush gave lip service to the issue of global warming but did not treat it as a particularly urgent problem, McCain embraced the issue. Indeed, McCain’s positions are such a strange jumble that there is something in them to annoy just about everyone. Don’t get me started on public campaign financing, which was one of his signature achievements. I think by now even liberal Democrats may now have come around to the fact that it is futile to attempt regulating political speech, no matter how high-minded the aim. Anyway, it does a remarkable man like McCaIn a major disservice to dismiss him as the same as Bush.

This is not meant to be a criticism of the Obama campaign strategy. All candidates do what they need to win, and Obama and his team were canny enough to perceive that there was major residual anger toward Bush that was all too willing to grab the chance to vote against him—even if the vote was really only against a substitute straw man. Virtually any Republican would have done. Neither is this an argument that John McCain should have been elected. It was not his time. In another time under different circumstances, he might have been a very good president. But the presidency is not a reward for service or longevity. It is meant simply for whomever the majority of the voters (well, of the Electoral College) wants at that moment in history. In this particular moment, most people clearly want a fresh start with a fresh face and a fresh approach. In the end, the choice in this election was sort of like having to choose between the cool kid at school and your dad.

I don’t feel sorry for McCain. Of all the politicians on the national stage, he surely has things in the proper perspective. A person cannot go through what he has gone through and live as long as he has lived and not see the world in sensible and measured way. I doubt he will spend the rest of his life replaying all his campaign moves and agonizing about why it didn’t turn out differently. Indeed, there may be a bit of relief there. One of the best lines from the TV pundits was the one (sorry, can’t remember which one) who quipped that, given the state of the financial and international problems facing the country, the winner may wake up the day after the election and demand a recount.

One thing that has struck me is the intense interest and attention that Europe has paid to this election. I often hear the argument that the United States is so powerful and dominant that everyone in the world should really have some say in its leadership. Clearly, the planet has the American leader it wanted. “Are ye all happy campers now?” asked the shop lady yesterday morning, presuming that Americans everywhere are breathing the fresh air of freedom for the first time in years. It will take some getting used to, hearing the Irish press gushing enthusiastically and fawning over an American (soon to be) president. But I have no illusions. During the Clinton administration, the fact that Bill was personally very popular with the Irish did not stop them from criticizing the American government in general or, for that matter, America in general. Still, at the end of the day, it has to be said that, through different administrations and unpopular wars over the years, the one consistent complaint I have heard about the United States from non-Americans has always been that it doesn’t hand out nearly enough green cards.

But back to McCain. If I have a soft spot for him, it is this. The man is a major movie buff, who watches films regularly. Indeed, maybe things would have gone better for him on Tuesday if he had stuck to his traditional Election Day practice of going to a movie. (Obama did stick to his usual tradition of playing some basketball.) A couple of web pages (Roger Ebert’s blog and actually analyzed the favorite movies of the two candidates and what they said about the election. Referring to the candidates’ Facebook pages, McCain’s favorites were determined to be Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (starring Marlon Brando), Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Obama’s were Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and its sequel, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

On the face of it, it is hard to criticize either man’s choices. Oh, I suppose you could make something of Chicago pol Obama’s affinity for movies about gangsters or an epic about a westerner championing Arab nationalism or, for that matter, a movie that puts the U.S. health care system in a pretty bad light. But I certainly can’t fault his choice of favorite movie, since it is also mine. Casablanca is about an American (Humphrey Bogart) who realizes that he cannot stay on the sidelines while fascists overrun other countries.

As for McCain, it is not surprising that two of the three choices deal with the theme of war, although neither is the classic Hollywood war movie that one might have imagined. Letters from Iwo Jima is a recent film that looks at World War II from the Japanese point of view. And Viva Zapata! is about the Mexican Revolution. More to the point may be the fact that two of the three favorite films of the champion of the recent, failed immigration bill, were directed by immigrants to America—Kazan, born in what is now Turkey, and Wilder, born in what is now Poland. No doubt McCain identified with the character played by Brando in the Kazan movie. An idealistic fighter for the people who, in the movie, comes to realize it is hard for idealism to survive once one achieves political power.

It may not be a bad movie for the relatively young president-elect to take a look at as well.

-S.L., 6 November 2008

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