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'A Surprisingly Immature Politician'

John McCain has always seemed to revel in the sycophantic adulation he’s enjoyed among the media elite, so it’s kind of fascinating to see McCain

John McCain has always seemed to revel in the sycophantic adulation he’s enjoyed among the media elite, so it’s kind of fascinating to see McCain’s one-time media fans realize that he’s not the man they thought he was.

The first, and probably most notable, was Time’s Joe Klein, who conceded last week that he was wrong to believe McCain is an “honorable man.” Soon after, writing on the inanity of McCain’s attacks against Barack Obama, Klein’s headline read, “The Scum Also Rises.”

It looks like Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter has joined the club, noting with noticeable regret that he “misread McCain.”

In the middle of John McCain’s dopey Britney & Paris attack ad, the announcer gravely asks of Barack Obama: “Is He Ready to Lead?” An equally good question is whether McCain is ready to lead. For a man who will turn 72 this month, he’s a surprisingly immature politician — erratic, impulsive and subject to peer pressure from the last knucklehead who offers him advice. The youthful insouciance that for many years has helped McCain charm reporters like me is now channeled into an ad that one GOP strategist labeled “juvenile,” another termed “childish” and McCain’s own mother called “stupid.” The Obama campaign’s new mantra is that McCain is “an honorable man running a dishonorable campaign.” Lame is more like it. And out of sync with the real guy. […]

McCain is patently insincere when his heart’s not in it, like a little boy who eats his peas when his parents tell him to but remains transparently unhappy about the experience. It’s not clear how committed McCain himself is to this latest assault on Obama. Does he genuinely believe that Obama is an out-of-control egomaniac who thinks he’s Moses? McCain no doubt comforts himself that the ad making that argument — an argument that is beneath a major-party candidate for president — was not part of a big media buy but just chum thrown to the media piranhas via the Drudge Report. […]

On the night of the 2000 South Carolina primary, I was in his hotel suite and watched Cindy weeping over what Rove and his goons did. Her husband was plenty mad, too. Now he’s got Rove’s protege, Steve Schmidt, running his campaign.

Alter concludes that McCain “mortgaged his precious personal honor.” I think that absolutely true, but I still get the sense that even newly-critical McCain detractors are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. At least a little.

Alter’s piece is a very good one, so I’m reluctant to criticize it, but his column still argues that McCain is being fundamentally led astray by Republican hatchetmen giving him bad advice.

McCain, Alter argues, is waging a negative and dishonest campaign, but this is “out of sync with the real guy.” McCain may be on the attack, but his “heart’s not in it.” He’s foolishly taking the advice of “knuckleheads.” It’s that darn Steven Schmidt who deserves most of the blame.

I even realize why Alter wants to think McCain is only partially responsible for his ugly turn — if media figures respected and admired McCain, and sang his praises for the last decade, and all the while McCain was really just a shameless Republican hack, playing the media for fools, it’s hard to accept. If, however, McCain is really a great guy underneath, but has been corrupted by a dishonorable and pathetic Republican machine, then there’s some comfort in knowing that reporters hadn’t misjudged his character all along.

But I’m quite certain they did. McCain was playing a role, and the media bought it. Kevin explained quite well the other day why this it’s-not-McCain’s-fault argument misses the mark.

Apparently he’s just a straight talking guy who woke up one morning and found himself mysteriously under the sway of a vile cabal of political hit men and unable to do anything about it.

Enough’s enough. McCain hired Steve Schmidt, he approves the strategy, and he signs off on the ads. If his campaign is mired in sleaze, it’s not happening despite McCain, it’s happening because of McCain. Stop making excuses for him.

Quite right. McCain hired Rove’s operation for a reason: he really wants to be president, and doesn’t much care how he gets there.

It’s nice, I suppose, to examine all of this and think McCain is just the latest good guy to go bad, but I think this is fundamentally flawed. John McCain simply is not a man of strong character.

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