Last week’s Republican National Convention heard plenty of testimonies to John McCain’s character.
Indeed, while the frenzy over Sarah Palin’s selection as the party’s vice presidential nominee may have dominated media coverage of the gathering of the Republican clan, almost every speech from the podium — including Palin’s own — vouched for the honor and decency of the party’s presidential candidate.
Most of the speeches were predictable recitations of the senator’s military record, topped with equally predictable recollections of the days when he was something of a political maverick. Even McCain got into the act, delivering an acceptance that was a lot longer on biography than ideology — let alone any kind of domestic agenda.
Because the Republican nominee and his supporters have throughout the current campaign relied on personal history rather than practical policies to advance his candidacy, the getting-to-know-McCain speeches added little if anything to the narrative of a convention where all the excitement seemed to be generated by Palin.
McCain needed better testimonials.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party’s militantly right-wing base — which McCain fears more than any nominee since Gerald Ford in 1976 — left no space for them.
A good testimonial does not recount known history; it tells listeners something fresh about the man or woman in question, something unexpected and redefining. By that standard, the best statement on behalf of John McCain that I heard last week was not presented from the podium of the convention that nominated him.
It was not even heard in the hall.
The finest testimonial on behalf of the Republican nominee for president came in a speech delivered far from the convention center by former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, a man who has known McCain for decades and had something meaningful to say about the senator.
Addressing a gathering at St. Paul’s University Club, where gay and lesbian Republicans had convened their Log Cabin Club event, Kolbe offered a heartfelt, at times emotional, endorsement of McCain.
McCain, Kolbe recalled, was the first political figure to whom the former congressman revealed that he was a gay man.
The revelation came when Kolbe learned that he was about to be “outed” in a magazine.
The veteran Republican congressman, who had for decades struggled to keep his sexuality a secret, was scared and unsure.
He turned to the most prominent Republican he knew for reassurance.
And McCain gave it to his colleague and friend.
“I drew him aside after leaving a breakfast,” Kolbe recalled in his speech to the 150 gay and lesbian Republican activists who came to hear him speak to the Log Cabin’s Club’s “Big Tent” luncheon at the University Club. “I said that some personal information was about to come out that I need you to know about. He put up his hands and said, ‘Jim, it doesn’t make any difference’ — obviously, he already knew.”
The veteran Republican congressman continued: “He said, ‘You’re a great legislator today and you will be tomorrow. You’re a friend today, and you will be tomorrow.’ That really touched me and gave me encouragement to talk to other members of Congress.”
Kolbe’s words carried weight with his audience. The Log Cabin Republicans, who pointedly did not endorse George Bush for re-election in 2004, when the president was promoting anti-same-sex marriage initiatives, voted to back McCain.
The point here is not to suggest that John McCain is some kind of gay rights champion, although his outspoken opposition in 2004 to Republican efforts to draw up a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage merits note.
Kolbe is undoubtedly correct that, like Vice President Dick Cheney, McCain has no taste for discriminating against gays and lesbians. But also like Cheney — who grudgingly went along with the GOP’s gay-bashing campaign of 2004 despite the fact that his own daughter was an out lesbian in a committed relationship — McCain does not have the strength of character to stand up to the bigots in his own party.
Indeed, even as he tries to appeal to libertarian-leaning Republicans this year, McCain has accepted a crude and backward Republican platform that is the most homophobic in the party’s history — a document that rants about “the incompatibility of homosexuality with military service,” endorses “a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage as a union of a man and a woman, so that judges cannot make other arrangements equivalent to it,” and that, in a section hailing the party’s commitment to individual rights, pointedly avoids denouncing discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The great tragedy of John McCain’s current candidacy is that everyone who knows the man — as I have for the better part of two decades — knows that, while he is not in the camp of the haters who have come to dominate his party, the senator lacks the courage to challenge them.
McCain is so scared of offending the Republican Party’s muscular social-conservative base that, in order to appease them, he has agreed to run on a hate-mongering platform, nominated an under-qualified running mate, and avoided highlighting some of the most reassuring and compelling chapters in his personal story.
There really are interesting and meaningful testimonials that can be made for John McCain. Jim Kolbe delivered one last week. Unfortunately, the convention that nominated the senator from Arizona refused to highlight the maverick stances that have always been the most attractive pieces of the puzzle that is John McCain.
It is a sad statement about McCain’s candidacy and the Republican Party that, despite all the talking-point recitations about what a great man McCain is, the party could not stomach an honest portrayal of its own nominee.
It would be nice to fantasize that John McCain might somehow regain the courage of his convictions after his election as president. Certainly, that is what Kolbe and the Log Cabin Republicans want to believe. But the truth is that, if McCain and his lieutenants did not have the courage to feature a genuinely appealing testimonial from his friend Jim Kolbe at the convention that nominated him, it would be silly to think that the candidate would behave any more honorably on the campaign trail or in the White House.