by Bastoche | 5/12/2008 03:23:00 PM
In his recent Washington Post article, Michael Leahy lays out the evidence in support of a contention that few would dispute: John McCain has a temper. Few would dispute it because, as Leahy reports, many have witnessed McCain erupt in volcanic and memorable displays of anger. What is more interesting, however, is that these witnesses interpret McCain’s outbursts from two contrasting viewpoints. Some portray McCain as “an erratic hothead” whose anger is provoked by “either disloyalty to him or irrational opposition to his ideas.” Bob Smith, for example, opines ominously that McCain’s sometimes uncontrollable temper “would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger.”

Others, however, characterize McCain’s temper as a positive, even laudable trait, one that makes him “a firebrand who is resolute against the forces of greed and gutlessness.” Among these bullish optimists is Joe Lieberman who reassures us that McCain’s temper “has never been enough to blur his judgment….If anything his passion and occasional bursts of anger have made him more effective.” One important piece of evidence seems to corroborate Lieberman’s view: McCain himself recognizes that his temper is a flaw. This willingness to admit to his imperfection testifies not only to the soundness of his judgment, as Lieberman argues, but also to his humility—traits important for a leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

They are also, of course, traits important for any politician campaigning to become that leader, and McCain’s advisers seem eager to incorporate them into a narrative that showcases their candidate’s character. Like any other candidate for president, so the story goes, McCain offers to the American electorate both strengths and weaknesses. But unlike most other candidates, McCain neither boasts about the former nor tries to conceal the latter. He does not, that is, talk crookedly, nor does he try to sell to the American people an image of himself patched together from focus groups and suavely tailored by Beltway consultants. He is a savvy enough politician to know that images are unpredictable and uncontrollable things: the candidate who lives by the image can die by the image. More important, he has such confidence in his abilities that he can present himself to the American people realistically and without the varnish and gloss of campaign artifice. These attributes of character—humility and the ability to see himself realistically and without exaggeration—appeal strongly to the American people. Americans do not seek in their president someone who is without foible or flaw. But Americans do seek in their president someone who has the wisdom to recognize his flaws and the humility to admit them.

Of course, the humility to recognize flaws is useless without the courage to correct them. But this too is an attribute that McCain possesses. Indeed, as Leahy reports, one of those who has borne the brunt of McCain’s temper, former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, now claims that McCain has “mellowed.” McCain, that is, has examined unflinchingly his propensity to anger and has taken steps to mitigate it. He has not eradicated his temper nor should he eradicate it: Americans do not want a president who is deficient in spirit and unwilling to fight for his principles. But McCain now strives to channel the energy of his temper constructively and to put it to wise and effective use.

An important campaign theme thus emerges. John McCain has always had a remarkable strength of character. He has also had a tendency to assert that strength a little too forcefully. Years of experience, however, have taught him to control his displays of temper and to put his personal strength to constructive use.

John McCain, in other words, has mellowed into a wise and moderate leader.

1. An Education in Honor

But the vague and unspecific idea of “mellowing” sheds no appreciable light on McCain’s long and profound journey of personal discovery. Mark Salter intends to correct that deficiency. In her recent Boston Globe article, “Inventing John McCain,” Sasha Issenberg provides a portrait of Salter, McCain’s “closest aide and one frequently described as his alter ego.” Having co-authored with McCain a number of books, including McCain’s two volumes of memoirs, Faith of My Fathers and Worth the Fighting For, Salter obviously is very well acquainted with his alter ego’s life, both its overall trajectory and its significant details. And as McCain’s most devoted and imaginative image-maker, he is now deep in the process of familiarizing the American electorate with the narrative of John McCain’s journey to personal and political greatness.

Like any good campaign narrative, the story of McCain’s personal journey contains a number of mutually reinforcing elements organized around a central theme that is simple, edifying, and easily grasped: McCain’s life has been an education in honor. McCain admits that as a young man he often struck back in anger when provoked, and he specifies the incitement that touched off his outbursts: “I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone who I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect.” McCain, as a young man, was certainly not exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary in that regard. His focus was on his own personal honor, and his anger would flare up when he felt his honor denigrated or traduced. But McCain was fortunate to have available to him two men who, through their example, showed him that honor must attach itself to something other than the individual self. Both his father and his grandfather, through military service, devoted their lives to a cause, America. Through their undeviating and patriotic devotion to our great nation, they showed the young McCain that one must rise above all trifling and small-minded concerns and put oneself in the service of an ideal that transcends the individual self.

The examples of his father and grandfather deepened McCain’s understanding of duty and of honor and rescued him from his youthful narcissism. Honor achieves true significance when it attaches itself to an ideal that transcends the narcissistic self committed only to its own importance. McCain’s forbears attached themselves to one of the most honorable of all transcendent ideals, the nation. They were willing to sacrifice their energies and even their lives not only for their own individual honor but also for the honor of America and the principles it embodies: freedom and democracy. Their own personal honor and the honor of their nation became one. From their example McCain learned that personal honor divorced from a transcendent ideal is a meager and impoverished thing. And having dedicated himself and his honor to a cause higher than his own isolated self—the cause of America and its principles—he came to own those qualities without which no politician can hope to lead a nation effectively: humility, judgment, and courage.

In spite of his dedication to the interests and the honor of America, McCain remains touchy regarding his own personal honor. As Salter readily admits, “many of McCain's run-ins with colleagues and activists have resulted from McCain's conviction that his honor in some way has been questioned.” But though his temper is still quick to ignite, McCain knows that he must bridle his spirit and channel its energy to the benefit of his party and his nation. In that sense he has mellowed. He has learned that a man achieves true honor by devoting himself to a cause that transcends the petty concerns of his individual self. And in this culminating stage of his great career, McCain willingly and without stint devotes himself and his remarkable energy to the greatest cause of all: America.

2. The Cowboy Learns the Benefits of Moderation

McCain’s choice of Robert Kagan as his foreign policy “guru” reinforces this narrative. As I discussed in my last post, Kagan was one of the writers who contributed to the foreign policy speech in which McCain referred to himself as a “realistic idealist.” As an idealist, McCain still supports America's mission to spread freedom and democracy to all the nations of the earth. But in his moderation and wisdom he knows that America must temper its idealist spirit and approach its mission realistically, with prudence and caution. He is therefore calling for a League of Democracies in which America, in alliance with its great democratic allies, will forge a new and multilateral path to global peace and security.

McCain’s League of Democracies is the campaign version of the Concert of Democracies that Kagan, along with such liberal interventionists as Ivo Daalder, G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, has been touting as a counterpoise to the giant autocratic states, China and Russia. Like many other neocons, Kagan, as a result of the current muddle in the Middle East, has tempered his idealistic fervor and has come to see that America must, at least for the moment, forego unilateral action in world affairs and build new multilateral alliances with its fellow democracies. But although he has embraced a new realism, Kagan remains a firm and unfaltering idealist. For Kagan, America is history’s pivotal nation, and although it must forge new means to carry forward its world-historical mission, that mission is still the one that history bequeathed it at its birth.

America, according to Kagan, was born into history as the embodiment of freedom and democracy, and its world-historical mission is now and has always been to universalize those universal ideals, that is, to spread them throughout the world. America is capable of carrying out this great historical mission because it is endowed with the expansive energy, the spirited aggressiveness that the Greeks called thumos. That America has always been an aggressive and expansive nation is the central argument of Kagan’s book, Dangerous Nation, and of the essay I am examining in this series, “Cowboy Nation.” From its inception, according to Kagan, America has put its aggressive spirit in the service of two goals: the expansion of its territory and its commerce and, even more important, the expansion of its core principles, freedom and democracy, to every corner of the globe.

If America must now rein in its expansive spirit, it must not go to the opposite extreme of eradicating it. Like any other neocon, Kagan adheres to his idea of America as the most potent and commanding force in world affairs. But he has assessed our present situation realistically, and he recognizes that America’s new leader must curb, at least temporarily, his nation’s idealistic zeal. At the same time, that leader must allow his nation sufficient scope to express its idealism and to carry forward its world-historical mission. He must, that is, balance idealism with realism, and a Concert of Democracies seems to be one instrument by which such a balance can be achieved.

John McCain subscribes to the idea of such a Concert or League. Passionately committed to the ideals embodied in his great nation, McCain recognizes that in a League of Democracies America, though constrained by its allies, will be able to use its power and energy to advance the cause of freedom. Unfortunately, a powerful and vocal faction in America resents and seeks to neutralize any leader who is intent on committing America’s energy and strength to the cause of freedom, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. And that faction is determined to defeat McCain in November and to scale back America’s commanding role in world affairs.

As I also discussed in my last post, Harvey Mansfield in his 2007 Jefferson Lecture argues that if we want to understand the dynamics of political conflict, we must once against make use of the concept of thumos. In his controversial 2006 book Manliness Mansfield argues that our modern liberal society is openly hostile to thumos and to the person who epitomizes its aggressive and expansive energy, the man of courage or, as Mansfield calls him, the manly man. In fact, modern liberalism, according to Mansfield, is waging against thumos and manliness a “calculated campaign” (228). This campaign has two complementary goals: the neutralization of manliness in the political arena and the establishment of a “gender-neutral” society characterized by a diminished and effete equality.

Mansfield, however, though he is staunch and unwavering in his defense of the manly man against those on the liberal left who would domesticate him, does not sentimentalize the man of thumos and courage. He recognizes that in the character of the manly man resides a capacity for excess and extremity. Specifically, the manly man is prone to nihilism and tyranny. To avoid these inevitable outcomes of excessive and extreme manliness, the manly man must learn moderation. The manly man must do what John McCain has done: he must temper his tendency to excess by subordinating himself to a higher and more noble cause than his own ambition. As Mansfield argues, following his master Aristotle, the manly man at his best is a moderate man.

And as a man of moderate though still potent energy, the manly man will defeat and scatter those who oppose his expansive spirit: the liberal elite.

3. In Which the Manly Man Enters the Arena of Politics and Honor

Manliness, according to Mansfield, is propelled by the spontaneous and instinctive energy or spirit that Aristotle and Plato called thumos. An aggressive and animal spirit, thumos manifests itself both defensively and offensively: defensively when the animal or person is attacked, offensively when the animal or person must fight to obtain the materials it needs in order to survive and reproduce.

Thumos in its distinctively human form, however, manifests itself when the person is prompted to fight for something more than material self-interest. “Manliness is not mere aggression,” Mansfield says; “it is aggression that develops an assertion, a cause it espouses” (49). The manly man asserts himself aggressively for the sake of a cause to which he attaches the utmost value, worth and importance. But there is nothing unselfish about his devotion to the cause. He attaches value and importance to it because it is his cause. He identifies with the cause and devotes himself to it because the cause expresses his sense of his own value and importance. His importance and the importance of his cause merge and become one.

As a result, on the success of his cause depends that without which the manly man cannot live: his honor, his sense of himself as worthy of the esteem and respect of others. Should his cause fail, should it be exposed to shame, humiliation, and disgrace, the manly man will himself feel shamed, humiliated, and disgraced. The manly man is thus willing to endure hardship and to sacrifice his material interests and even his life to carry his cause to success or to rescue it from defeat. “Other animal species seek to survive,” Mansfield says; “humans want to survive with honor” (60). The manly man can easily endure material deprivation. Indeed, he scoffs at the prospect of material loss and physical danger. But what he does not scoff at, what he finds intolerable and resolutely sets himself against, is the denigration and defeat of his cause. Mansfield is emphatic: the manly man “finds his survival only in his honor” (37).

The cause to which the manly man devotes himself is not a mere whim, peculiar to himself and to no one else. His cause embodies a principle or ideal that transcends his individual self, a principle or ideal that claims, in addition to his own, the allegiance of many other individuals. Finding that his cause—and the principle or ideal it embodies—is shared and espoused by others, the manly man joins his energy to theirs and forms a group or community committed to the defense and promotion of the cause. This community—an advocacy group, a political party, or, at its furthest extension, a nation itself—seeks to advance the cause that expresses the manly man’s sense of importance and honor, and the manly man, as one member of the party or nation whose honor he sees as coextensive with his own, will strive to assert its predominance against competing groups.

And there are always competing groups. Though espoused by many, the cause to which the manly man attaches himself is not espoused by all. It falls short of universal acceptance and remains limited, specific to one group, one party, one nation. And precisely because its reach is not universal, it finds itself in opposition to and in conflict with other groups and parties and nations that uphold different and competing causes and ideals. Out of this opposition and conflict arises the arena of struggle that we call politics. The struggle that takes place in the political arena is often difficult and demanding, but the manly man does not flinch from it. Quite the contrary, he welcomes the struggle and is always eager to defend his cause from the assaults of those who oppose it.

But what truly activates the manly man’s spirit, his thumos, is the opportunity to assert the predominance of his cause against its competitors. And as Mansfield emphasizes, the manly man’s assertion of his cause is not polite and diplomatic but aggressive and bold. For the manly man politics is not a quiet conference room in which rational people timidly seek to appease one another by glossing over their differences and disagreements. Politics is a gladiatorial arena of competition and deadly struggle. It is the field of battle on which the manly man, by asserting the predominance of his cause, gains for his leader, his party, his nation, and himself that without which his life would be empty and void: victory and honor.

4. In Which the Manly Man Succumbs to Nihilism and Tyranny

Politics is thus, for Mansfield, the arena in which opposing ideals and causes and ways of life contend aggressively against one another for dominance and control. On the battlefield of politics one group or nation asserts its ideals and values against those of another, firm in the belief that its ideals and values are superior to those of its opponent. “Every political association,” Mansfield says, “is deliberately partial by excluding the rest of humanity and determinedly partisan by thinking itself to be a superior way of life” (206).

As Mansfield has said, the manly man does not devote himself to a cause and assert its superiority out of mere whim. He can adduce reasons that his cause is superior to the cause of any other group in the political arena. But it is often the case that the manly man adheres to a cause and asserts its superiority for reasons on which he has not reflected. For example, the manly man has been born and raised in a specific nation with a specific history and culture and politics, and he will adhere to the cause of his nation and assert its superiority with an aggressive and unstinting courage because it is his nation. The simple fact that he is American—or Russian or Chinese, etc.—is sufficient reason for him to sacrifice his material interests and even his life in defense of his nation and the ideals it embodies. Thus, although the manly man’s devotion to a cause is not based on mere whim but on reasons, those reasons often remain circumstantial and arbitrary.

Mansfield, following Aristotle’s argument in the Politics, points out that the manly man, by arbitrarily asserting the superiority of his cause, and by extension the superiority of himself, becomes a potentially dangerous force. “The ‘self’ being asserted is not only compatible with tyranny,” Mansfield says, “but in its desire for superiority has an inherent element of tyranny” (216-17). If the manly man judges his way of life superior to all others, why should he not aggressively seek to assert it and expand it until it has subordinated to itself all inferior ways of life? A politics based on manliness, Mansfield says, thus “has a problem it cannot resolve: the manly men in taking responsibility for others cannot stop themselves from ruling their inferiors and from treating them as slaves” (217). The manly man treats his inferiors as slaves, of course, for their own good. He is introducing those he has defeated and enslaved to his own superior values and ideals and thus, even though they resist what he seeks to impose, they are still, in their defeat and enslavement, better off than they were when they foolishly adhered to their previous and demonstrably inferior way of life.

When the manly man thus attempts tyrannically to assert the superiority of his way of life over all others, he is no longer asserting a cause or ideal. Rather, according to Mansfield, he has detached himself from his cause and is asserting in its stead the supreme importance of his most glorious ideal: himself. He has, in fact, renounced all other causes and devotes himself no longer to a group or party or nation but to the only cause that has meaning to him: his own power and predominance. The manly man, in his grandiose pride, has stepped beyond good and evil and entered a realm of Nietzschean nihilism, as Mansfield calls it. Rather than subordinating himself to his cause, he subordinates his cause to himself, and even though he still deploys his energy and spirit in the service of his cause, loudly asserting its preeminence and superiority, his overt behavior masks his covert intent. In reality he has reduced his cause to an instrument, a mere means to achieve his true end: his own honor and glory. He has become the ideal whose predominance he seeks to assert.

5. A Wise and Moderate Old Warrior

When he was a young man John McCain was his own ideal. By following the examples of his forebears, however, and putting himself in the service of a higher cause—his great nation, America—he tamed his temper and brought it into prudent and reasonable bounds. True, he can still erupt in noteworthy displays of anger when he feels the honor of his nation slighted. But Americans respect and admire the man who enters the arena of politics willing to fight, and fight hard, for the principles to which he has dedicated his life. Even if, now and again, his temper champs at the bit, the American people know that years of experience have taught McCain the wisdom of humility. He will use his manly spirit to fight for America in the arena of world politics, but he will never allow it to transgress the bounds of decent and honorable conduct.

To put it in Mansfield’s terms, McCain has taken his aggressive and manly temper in hand and rescued it from the extreme of nihilism and tyranny. He has, that is, transformed his spirited temper into a virtue, the virtue of courage. Mansfield follows Aristotle in locating courage or manliness at a moderate mean between two extremes, the extreme of excess and the extreme of deficiency. The extreme of excess, as we have seen, results in nihilism and tyranny. But Mansfield is even more concerned about the opposing extreme, the extreme of deficient manliness. This extreme, according to Mansfield, is characterized in our era not by nihilism and tyranny but by rationality. This deficient rationality is certainly not the rationality characteristic of the true philosopher, the manly Socratic philosopher who, as we shall see next time, admires the manly man and strives to keep his excesses in check by means of reasons—not arbitrary reasons, but reasons embedded in cogent and convincing arguments. In our era, however, a new and different kind of rationality is at war with manliness. This rationality denies the manly man his exceptional stature in society and strives to reduce all differences—political, cultural, sexual—to the status of an effete and diminished equality. This new rationality, deficient in manliness and openly hostile to it, is, of course, the rationality of the liberal elite.

I’ll return to Kagan’s arguments in “Cowboy Nation” and in his new book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, later in this series. Next time though, I’ll examine the deficient rationality that, according to Mansfield, is characteristic of our era, an era dedicated to gender-neutrality and to the neutralization of thumos and the manly man.

Crossposted at Daily Kos and Politics and Letters

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/13/2008 5:36 PM:

The manly man asserts himself aggressively for the sake of a cause to which he attaches the utmost value, worth and importance.

Maybe it's my unmanly liberalism, but I think I've seen that transcendant thumos and sense of honor exhibited by at least as many women as men in my life. Though perhaps without the "Nietzschean nihilism."

Politics is a gladiatorial arena of competition and deadly struggle.

What's odd about this is that the supposedly "manly" Republicans are the ones most likely to apply dishonorable methods in the arena, thus separating victory and honor....

the manly men in taking responsibility for others cannot stop themselves from ruling their inferiors and from treating them as slaves

Or, as I've said before, we all have an inner Stalin.


Blogger Bastoche on 5/13/2008 10:28 PM:

Ahist: Mansfield allows that women can be aggressive and assertive. The feminist movement is, for him, proof of that. “If women can take their personal grievance and make it political, isn’t that enough to show that women are as assertive, and therefore as political, as men?” No it is not, Mansfield says. Comparatively, women are not as fit for the manly arena of politics as men. “Though it’s clear that women can be manly [assertive in the political arena], it’s just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly as men,” since women “have less of the brute spirit of aggression [thumos] when compared with men” (63-4). Politics, remember, is for Mansfield—and for the neocons in general—a Hobbesian realm of struggle and war, not a Kantian realm of cooperation and peace. And courage is demonstrated by asserting differences, not reconciling them.

Yes, I agree, we all have an inner Stalin. That the manly man is prone to nihilism and tyranny is an interesting point, juxtaposing as it does Aristotle and Nietzsche. Characteristically, though, Mansfield muddles things by forcing his argument to conform to his neocon preconceptions. Just one example. The manly man, Mansfield argues, following Aristotle, occupies the virtuous mean between two extremes. But Mansfield envisages the two extremes according to the standard neocon scorecard. Extreme manliness, which loves war and craves power, is exemplified by Nazism, Communism, and Islamofascism. Deficient manliness, which fears conflict and craves peace, is exemplified by liberalism and its drive to reduce everyone to a timid and unthreatening equality. Between the two, occupying the virtuous mean, are the manly men, warriors and philosophers, who, fearless and strong, defend their freedom on the one hand from tyrants who would suppress it and on the other from liberals who would neuter it. More on this next time.

And both you and I know that no Republican administration would ever separate victory from honor by, say, normalizing torture as a method of interrogation.


Blogger mark on 5/13/2008 11:55 PM:

Eisenhower had a really, really bad temper. Truman's swearing could blister paint off the wall. The republic survived.

If McCain has a really bad temper, it has yet to translate into creating sizable political gaffes. Given his age, we'd have seen some kind of public implosion by now


Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/14/2008 12:08 AM:

Mark, two questions:

1) Are you supporting McCain?

2) Have you seen this?


Blogger mark on 5/14/2008 11:23 AM:

Hi Jeremy,

I'm awaiting his veep choice. McCain-Feingold sat very poorly with me. I'd like to see someone who is more of a free-marketeer or a policy "wise man" selected for veep to balance out some of McCain's weaknesses. McCain needs an out-of-the-box choice, not a safe one. Picking Romney, for example, would be a losing move.

Yes, I've heard tales of that. Bill Clinton was capable of similar explosive personal tirades ( actually, so was Hillary - this behavior might be a Boomer thing)but he managed to not make presidential decisions based on his temper tantrums.

What we really ought to worry about are candidates who calmly make bad decisions.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/14/2008 12:58 PM:

What we really ought to worry about are candidates who calmly make bad decisions.

Yes, but....

If a campaign platform represents calm decision, then McCain is going to be a disaster either way.

There's also evidence that McCain's temper is not just outbursts, but sometimes manifests as grudges, long-term disaffection, and has played a role in senate votes. I don't care about a little bad language, though I don't see that it helps us all that much when people can't keep it private -- coarsening the culture and all that -- but I do care about whether he's got the people skills to manage a government and handle a foreign policy. Say what you like about our current president, but he's got incredible people skills (domestically).