For those who remember the 1992 race, “character issues” was the euphemism to attack Bill Clinton for having a troubled personal life. Has the ph
June 9, 2008

For those who remember the 1992 race, “character issues” was the euphemism to attack Bill Clinton for having a troubled personal life. Has the phrase been applied to Republican candidates with similar experiences? Not so much.

It was interesting, then, to see this report in the UK’s Daily Mail about Mrs. McCain — the first one — who is “seldom seen and rarely written about, despite being mother to McCain’s three eldest children.”

[H]ad events turned out differently, it would be she, rather than Cindy, who would be vying to be First Lady. She is McCain’s first wife, Carol, who was a famous beauty and a successful swimwear model when they married in 1965.

She was the woman McCain dreamed of during his long incarceration and torture in Vietnam’s infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison and the woman who faithfully stayed at home looking after the children and waiting anxiously for news.

But when McCain returned to America in 1973 to a fanfare of publicity and a handshake from Richard Nixon, he discovered his wife had been disfigured in a terrible car crash three years earlier…. When Carol was discharged from hospital after six months of life-saving surgery, the prognosis was bleak. In order to save her legs, surgeons had been forced to cut away huge sections of shattered bone, taking with it her tall, willowy figure. She was confined to a wheelchair and was forced to use a catheter.

Through sheer hard work, Carol learned to walk again. But when John McCain came home from Vietnam, she had gained a lot of weight and bore little resemblance to her old self.

“My marriage ended because John McCain didn’t want to be 40, he wanted to be 25,” she said. “You know that happens … it just does.”

It’s quite a painful story, involving physical difficulties, infidelity, and divorce. McCain’s first wife insists she’s not bitter, but clearly the circumstances surrounding her accident and the break-up of her family are an unpleasant subject.

Ross Perot, who paid for Carol’s medical care and introduced the McCains to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, said, “McCain is the classic opportunist. He’s always reaching for attention and glory.” Perot added, “After he came home, Carol walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona. And the rest is history.”

Ouch.

Now, I should clarify that as far as I’m concerned, McCain’s marital difficulties and adultery aren’t especially significant in this campaign, especially years later. I’m inclined to see a distinction made between public and private worlds. I defended Bill Clinton, and said his personal controversies had no bearing on his ability to be a good candidate and a good president, so I can’t very well turn around and say the opposite about McCain, no matter how badly he treated his first wife.

But therein lies the point: if Clinton’s personal history was a matter of tremendous national significance as a candidate and as a president, then it’s not unreasonable to wonder why McCain isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. I’d prefer both issues are off the table, but I’m hard pressed to imagine why only Democratic presidential candidates’ personal lives are of interest in the context of a national campaign.

For that matter, if and when the U.S. media gives this any attention at all, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on the religious right. From an article I wrote two years ago:

Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokesperson for Dobson’s Focus on the Family, recently made it clear that the adultery issue hasn’t lost any of its toxicity among evangelicals. “If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can’t be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?” she asked me. Although Earll was reluctant to discuss specific politicians, she noted that a candidate who “had an affair and then moved on and restored that marriage” might find forgiveness with Christian conservatives, but someone “who had an affair and then left his wife” would not.

And guess who that applies to?

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