Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 October 2008

The Fighter Pilot


John McCain is a fighter pilot. He began adult life as one, and he’s still one today. At 72, he can’t raise his arms over his head. But he wants to govern our country like a fighter with an enemy on its tail.

Fighter pilots have a job like no other in civilian or military life. When they’re up in the air in a dogfight, ultimate freedom is theirs. No one controls them. Their will and skill—and theirs alone—determine whether they win or lose, live or die.

There are orders from below, but they’re up their all alone. No one has time to listen to orders in the midst of a dogfight. And no one below really cares. If fighter pilots disobey orders and get killed, they’ll still have heroes’ funerals. If they disobey orders but bring back their planes and victory, they’ll get a slap on the wrist and a medal, not a court martial. Everyone knows this, including the pilots and their commanders. Extreme self-reliance is part of the job.

John McCain was a roustabout, a cut-up, and a failure in school. No one could give him discipline, and he ranked 894 out of 899 in his class at Annapolis. But he found his calling as a fighter pilot, which is way beyond “maverick.” It was the only place (besides Congress) he could fit in.

When you’re a fighter pilot with an enemy on your tail, you do the unexpected. You jerk the stick up and down, from side to side. You test the design limits of your aircraft. You push your own ability to suffer large G forces and not black out. You try to stall the aircraft and regain airspeed, hoping your enemy will rush by and set you on his tail.

Fly like a crazy person, and you might survive and conquer. Fly cautiously and by the book, and in a real war you’ll be dead for sure. Breaking rules is part of your job.

The only things that matter are shooting the enemy down and bringing yourself and your aircraft back home again. These are goals without subtlety or nuance. As one of his closest friends at the Naval Academy recalled about McCain, “Consequences didn’t scare him. ”

A brief look at McCain’s life and campaign shows just how well he fits the stereotype.

His entire public persona is built upon his heroism forty years ago. I don’t for a moment take anything away from him on that; I’ve praised his courage repeatedly on this blog.

McCain’s courage was exemplary. We don’t really know how good was his judgment when he got shot down. We don’t know whether he was brilliant and unlucky, or hasty and stupid.

But we do know one thing. Like any good fighter pilot, he did the unexpected. Once his North Vietnamese captors learned he was descended from two famous admirals, they wanted to squeeze him. They tried to use him for propaganda, offering to release him before his fellow prisoners as a “good will” gesture.

McCain would have none of that. In an heroic and unexpected move, he refused early release. His angry captors tortured and abused him. They nearly killed him. As McCain himself says, they “broke” him.

But McCain was a true fighter pilot. He had jerked the stick upward, and his personal plane had crashed and burned as a result. So he lived with the consequences. You can see them in his broken body to this day.

His fighter-pilot instincts didn’t end with his capture, heroic decision, torture and release. At every crucial turning point in his public life, McCain has played the fighter pilot the same way.

In the 1980s, he helped start the savings-and-loan crisis by jerking the stick to the right. He relentlessly pushed for the deregulation that allowed the crisis to happen. He intervened in the regulatory process to help his friend Charles Keating, a crooked savings and loan magnate who went to jail for his part in the crisis. That broke the rules, let alone common sense. So McCain got his reprimand, for “poor judgment,” from the Senate ethics committee.

But next he did the unexpected. He jerked the stick to the left. He broke with his party and supported campaign finance reform, earning the respect of his countrymen and his own party’s distrust and suspicion, which haunts him to this day. It was that jerk of the stick, more than any other, that gave him his “maverick” reputation, allowing him to run credibly against a party (his own) that has nearly destroyed the country.

McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin was just more of the same. Although a champion of human rights for captured warriors like himself, McCain has never championed civil rights for marginalized groups. For years he fought against a holiday for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.—a huge failure in judgment for which he recently apologized. Like most fighter pilots his age, McCain grew up in an all male, all white environment that shaped his character. On women’s rights and racial equality, his stick was gently but firmly stuck to the right.

But fighter pilots are nothing if not opportunists. With Barack Obama’s primary win over Hillary Clinton, he saw a parting in the clouds. Hillary’s supporters were angry and disappointed and ready to be courted. At the same time, he could burnish his “maverick” image by refusing conventional wisdom and selecting a complete unknown with no national experience whatsoever. As an utter ingénue, Palin could give credibility to a 26-year insider’s claim to be an outsider.

Not only that. Palin was “right” on the irrelevant right-wing issues that his party had demagogued relentlessly in its climb to national power over the last three decades. She’s “pro-life,” pro-guns, and a macho female. She believes that our “task” in Iraq “comes from God.” Palin has never flown a plane and never served in our armed forces, but in her heart she’s a fellow fighter pilot just the same. For John McCain, picking her was a trifecta of the unexpected.

So McCain jerked his stick to the right and down, running his campaign right into lipstick, pigs, ignorance, slander and slime. Sarah Palin, as it turned out, didn’t even know about the Bush Doctrine that got us mired in Iraq for over five years and counting. Picking her was a good tactic for a fighter pilot struggling for his life, but was it good for the country?

In the last week or so, McCain evidently saw another shadow pass overhead. So he jerked his stick, down, down, down, descending into veiled racial innuendo that recalls the “Willie Horton” ad. “Who is Barack Obama?,” he coyly asks, as if anyone who can read, see or hear doesn’t know after eighteen months of continuous campaigning. He allows his ingénue to associate Obama with terrorism and to whip crowds up to such a frenzy that they begin to resemble lynch mobs.

Then, like Mr. Hyde relapsing into Dr. Jekyll, he suddenly jerks the stick up. Remembering his manners (and the polls saying voters want solutions, not trash talk), he calls for decency and respect for Obama, leaving his angry crowds confused.

Finally, there’s that minor issue, the economy. All his life, John McCain’s stick of economic policy tilted to the right. He consistently supported deregulation, smaller government, lower taxes, unfettered markets and private enterprise. If his policies were an aircraft, he would have been flying in circles, spiraling constantly to the right.

But circling in the same direction is not an effective fighting tactic. Now a new enemy is on our tail. Our leaders’ collective greed, stupidity and selfishness is catching up with us. We need to make an unexpected move.

So John McCain, fighter pilot, once again jerks the stick to the left. In just a few hours, after a lifetime of right-wing orthodoxy, he lurches from Dubya’s mantra “the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” to calling for more regulation, cursing his fellow Republicans for inaction in battle, and calling for the head of Christopher Cox, the SEC Chief. In the second debate, he calls for a government buy-up of bad mortgages, but he won’t tell us enough detail to know whether it will spare predators (lenders) or their prey (borrowers) financial loss. His populist railing against Wall Street has become so strident that he’s having trouble raising money [subscription required] from the Masters of the Universe, who have plenty of it and have always supported his party.

If John McCain were John Kerry, half the country would be wearing flip-flops and laughing uproariously. No one would take him seriously. But McCain gets away with it. Why? Because it’s all perfectly in character. Everyone expects erratic and unexpected moves from a fighter pilot.

The fighter pilot is a romantic figure, the subject of many books and movies. He (or now she) is the modern version of the cowboy. One of our many existential questions in this election is whether we want to transplant a hero of romantic myths from the cockpit to the Oval Office.

It’s not as if we haven’t had a foretaste of that sort of governance. Dubya is not the fighter pilot John McCain is. He may have shirked his duty in the Texas Air National Guard. He never served in combat. He was never shot down. And he never showed one-tenth the courage—physical or moral— that McCain did in refusing early release from the “Hanoi Hilton.”

But aren’t they both fighter pilots to the core? Don’t they both have the same style of governing? Don’t they both jerk the stick from side to side, trying to elude an enemy that only they can see? Don’t they both disappoint their party and their country by taking impulsive, opportunistic action without weighing long-term consequences? Didn’t Dubya, like McCain, disappoint his party, in his case with a reckless, interventionist foreign policy and fiscal abandon utterly heedless of the national debt?

Isn’t fighter-pilot governance precisely what happened in invading Iraq? In hollowing out FEMA before Katrina, despite the searing lesson of 9/11? In trying to “privatize” a part of Social Security in the brief interlude between two economic downturns? In trying to enact sensible immigration reform while creating, encouraging and exploiting a phalanx of right-wing bullies crying for illegal immigrants’ heads?

When Barack Obama says that John McCain would bring us a third term of Dubya, he doesn’t mean they are the same men. McCain is a better man than Dubya in almost every way. But both think and act like fighter pilots. Both are from our mythic Southwest, where “shoot first and ask questions later” was once a way of life. Both act without considering consequences, such as the effect of Palin’s lynch-mob crowds on the ability of any president to govern. Dubya actually governed like a fighter pilot, and McCain’s every move in his campaign suggests that he will, too.

Even the best of us, in unguarded moments, wish that life in the twenty-first century were that simple. But we have three weeks to think. We have before us crucial questions of judgment, leadership style and character. Do we want that sort of leadership for yet another four years? Do we want another fighter pilot in the White House, even a better one, after the first one caused just about everything in our national life to fail?


Credit. This post was inspired by a remark of Norman Ornstein during a feature by Judy Woodruff on the Lehrer News Hour, which sketched John McCain’s character using interviews of people who know him.

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