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Thoroughly Unmodern McCain

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Op-Ed Columnist

Thoroughly Unmodern McCain


Published: January 21, 2008

In his victory speech after winning the South Carolina primary Saturday night, John McCain acknowledged the economic challenges we face, and then said: “But nothing is inevitable in our country. We are the captains of our fate.”

McCain comes from a generation that, in its youth, was made to memorize poetry. And when I was able to get in touch with him Sunday in Florida, he told me that one of the poems he had memorized in school was William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (1875). McCain actually recited snatches of the poem in our cellphone conversation — not something he does every day on the campaign trail, he pointed out.

In any case, here’s Henley’s Victorian warhorse:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud,

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

The young Henley had written this following the amputation of his foot because of tubercular infection. He lived until age 53, apparently unbow’d and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” character Long John Silver.)

One can see why “Invictus” might have appealed to the young McCain. One can see why snatches of it might have stuck in his mind while a prisoner of war, and after. But his allusion to its coda reminds us of what’s so distinctive about McCain as a contemporary political figure: He’s not thoroughly modern.

In this he differs from his competitors. Mitt Romney is the very model of a modern venture capitalist. Mike Huckabee is the very model of a modern evangelical. Rudy Giuliani is the very model of a modern can-do executive. They are impressive modern men all. But John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.

Maybe a dose of this type of neo-Victorianism is what the 21st century needs. A fair number of Republican and independent voters seem to think so, if one can infer as much from their support of McCain at the polls. But, amazingly, a neo-Victorian straightforwardness might also turn out to be strategically smart.

McCain has been the only Republican candidate who hasn’t tried to out-think the process. Perhaps out of sheer necessity, after his campaign imploded last summer, he simply picked himself up and made his case to the voters in the various states.

Meanwhile, the other G.O.P. candidates are creatures of our modern age of analysis and meta-analysis, and their campaigns have sometimes been too clever by half. Rudy Giuliani believed it would look bad to contest states he might not win. He therefore pulled back from Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina — and in the process surrendered his lead in Florida and nationally.

Conservatives were excited about Fred Thompson last spring. But Thompson apparently decided it would be too simple to strike while the iron was hot. He never recovered. And Mike Huckabee, after an extraordinary run in the fall, brought on experienced campaign pros, changed his position on immigration, raised the issue of the Confederate flag — and lost South Carolina.

Meanwhile, trying to be clever, Mitt Romney left South Carolina and headed to Nevada, thinking he could get more attention for his expected victory in the caucus there. If he had stayed and campaigned in South Carolina, he still would have won Nevada. And he might have cost McCain enough votes that McCain would have lost South Carolina to Huckabee, a much better outcome for the Romney campaign.

Yesterday, on “Fox News Sunday,” using his most up-to-date talking points, Romney claimed to be an outside-the-Beltway candidate, by contrast with John McCain, “who has been in Washington all [his] life.”

Romney might have paused before charging McCain with being a prisoner of Washington. In the late 1960s and early 70s, while Romney was a missionary in France and a law and business student at Harvard, McCain wasn’t living the good life here in the nation’s capital. He was “tied up at the time,” as he once reminded the audience in a Republican candidates’ debate, tied up and perhaps reciting to himself lines from “Invictus.”

K3 Timeline

06/14/2004 Receipt Date at NBC

12/22/2004 Petition Approved

01/10/2005 NVC Transferred Case to Mumbai Consulate

01/28/2005 Packet 3 collected from Consulate

02/02/2005 Packet 3 submitted

03/12/2005 Received Interview Letter dated 03/03/2005

04/04/2005 Interview : Put on Administrative Procedure / Review

04/06/2006 CR1 Visa Issued

04/24/2006 IR1 VISA ISSUED

Naturalization Timeline

02/11/2009 Mailed N400 application

03/13/2009 Biometrics appointment

05/13/2009 Interview & Oath

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