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Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008

McCain's heart wasn't really in it

LOS ANGELES — History's losers can emerge later as history's winners, especially in U.S. politics. John F. Kennedy lost his bid to become the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1956, but his televised concession speech helped to propel him into the White House four years later.

The ultra-eloquent Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois lost the presidential race twice, yet is well remembered in our political history as a giant figure.

As a first-term governor of Arkansas, William J. Clinton lost his bid for re-election, but rose from the ashes to become America's 42nd president.

John McCain, at 72, has no such comeback in his future. But in facing off against Barack Obama, he seemed less a loser than a winner. His concession speech Tuesday night in Arizona was luminously graceful and stirring. It's a paradox how this Republican rose to the occasion only after the decisive vote had risen against him.

But as second under the wire Tuesday night, the former Vietnam prisoner of war seemed notably comfortable in his own skin. His body language was that of relief rather than recrimination. There was little stuttering and no discernible posturing or insincerity.

The obvious reason for this is the talented Obama. As Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the incisive former Thai foreign minister, put it at an election-night party here, "Barack Obama has made history; John McCain is history."

McCain's heart was just not into beating Obama. A true American patriot, the septuagenarian did not want to stand in the way of history. To turn the Thai diplomat's thought on its head, the Arizona senator felt he was not history in the sense that the African-American senator from Illinois was.

Age can become a man when he accepts what age has to offer him. At 47, Obama would seem to have almost everything that life offers, from looks to brains to judgment. But no one who has lived less than seven decades can truly see and feel such a span of history.

My sense is that McCain ran for the office because he believed, as did many Republicans (not to mention Bill Clinton), that he was the only Republican who could possibly win. But when the American economy all but collapsed in September, McCain realized that for this election, no Republican could win.

Warriors fight gallantly even as the odds mount against them. In this campaign, McCain's policy positions were overrun by the inescapable reality of the economy, of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and of the shadow of George W. Bush. The floundering incumbent American president hung over his campaign like the ghost of Shakespeare's Banquo.

In a sense, this presidential campaign was McCain's second-longest imprisonment. The first, of course, was the enforced residency at the "Hanoi Hilton" for 5 1/2 years. Imprisonment as the Republican Party's standard-bearer lasted less than half as long, but one senses it was a torture.

Having to represent the Republican rightwing, McCain was hemmed in by ideology; thus came his controversial selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. As the world was to learn, the mind of the Alaska governor is an exceptionally blunt instrument. Most — though not all — of the American women I know regarded her as an embarrassment. By contrast, Obama, though half-white, was anything but an embarrassment to the other — more evident — half of his ethnicity.

Losing to Obama would, for some white men, be a humiliation. But not for McCain: As he said Tuesday night, it was an honor to have run against him. What this unusual, noncookie-cutter Republican did not say was that it was also an honor to go down in history as the white man who lost to him.

Thanks largely to McCain, this was not a racist election. Moments of infelicity and personal character-attacking were not avoided, to be sure; McCain's political jailers would not let him think publicly outside of the conventional box, as McCain famously does privately. As time went on, the real McCain receded and a politically reconstructed Republican candidate was cobbled together.

The problem was that not enough American voters found the new McCain believable; McCain himself surely found his new image hard to believe. And so when this honorable man lost the election to Obama, he became a happy man again. He knew the country was making history in the right way, and he knew he was getting his true self back.

In America, we call that a win-win situation. We should salute a man who became a winner by losing. Yes, he was shot down — but under honorable circumstances.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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