20 Apr 2008

P.J. O’Rourke on McCain

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P.J. O’Rourke visits an aircraft carrier and becomes a fan of John McCain’s.

Some say John McCain’s character was formed in a North Vietnamese prison. I say those people should take a gander at what John chose to do–voluntarily. Being a carrier pilot requires aptitude, intelligence, skill, knowledge, discernment, and courage of a kind rarely found anywhere but in a poem of Homer’s or a half gallon of Dewar’s. I look from John McCain to what the opposition has to offer. There’s Ms. Smarty-Pantsuit, the Bosnia-Under-Sniper-Fire poster gal, former prominent Washington hostess, and now the JV senator from the state that brought you Eliot Spitzer and Bear Stearns. And there’s the happy-talk boy wonder, the plaster Balthazar in the Cook County political crèche, whose policy pronouncements sound like a walk through Greenwich Village in 1968: “Change, man? Got any spare change? Change?”

Some people say John McCain isn’t conservative enough. But there’s more to conservatism than low taxes, Jesus, and waterboarding at Gitmo. Conservatism is also a matter of honor, duty, valor, patriotism, self-discipline, responsibility, good order, respect for our national institutions, reverence for the traditions of civilization, and adherence to the political honesty upon which all principles of democracy are based. Given what screw-ups we humans are in these respects, conservatism is also a matter of sense of humor. Heard any good quips lately from Hillary or Barack?

A one-day visit to an aircraft carrier is a lifelong lesson in conservatism. The ship is immense, going seven decks down from the flight deck and ten levels up in the tower. But it’s full, with some 5,500 people aboard. Living space is as cramped as steerage on the way to Ellis Island. Even the pilots live in three-bunk cabins as small and windowless as hall closets. A warship is a sort of giant Sherman tank upon the water. Once below deck you’re sealed inside. There are no cheery portholes to wave from.

McCain could hardly escape understanding the limits of something huge but hermetic, like a government is, and packed with a madding crowd. It requires organization, needs hierarchies, demands meritocracy, insists upon delegation of authority. An intricate, time-tested system replete with checks and balances is not a plaything to be moved around in a doll house of ideology. It is not a toy bunny serving imaginary sweets at a make-believe political tea party. The captain commands, but his whims do not. He answers to the nation.

And yet an aircraft carrier is more an example of what people can do than what government can’t. Scores of people are all over the flight deck during takeoffs and landings. They wear color-coded T-shirts–yellow for flight-directing, purple for fueling, blue for chocking and tying-down, red for weapon-loading, brown for I-know-not-what, and so on. These people can’t hear each other. They use hand signals. And, come night ops, they can’t do that. Really, they communicate by “training telepathy.” They have absorbed their responsibilities to the point that each knows exactly where to be and when and doing what.

These are supremely dangerous jobs. And most of the flight deck crew members are only 19 or 20. Indeed the whole ship is run by youngsters. The average age, officers and all, is about 24. “These are the same kids,” a chief petty officer said, “who, back on land, have their hats bumped to one side and their pants around their knees, hanging out on corners. And here they’re in charge of $35 million airplanes.”

The crew is in more danger than the pilots. If an arresting cable breaks–and they do–half a dozen young men and women could be sliced in half. When a plane crashes, a weapon malfunctions, or a fire breaks out, there’s no ejection seat for the flight deck crew. While we were on the Theodore Roosevelt a memorial service was held for a crew member who had been swept overboard. Would there have been an admiral and a captain of an aircraft carrier and hundreds of the bravest Americans at a memorial service for you when you were 20?

Supposedly the “youth vote” is all for Obama. But it’s John McCain who actually has put his life in the hands of adolescents on a carrier deck. Supposedly the “women’s vote” is . . . well, let’s not go too far with this. I can speak to John’s honor, duty, valor, patriotism, etc., but I’m not sure how well his self-discipline would have fared if he’d been on an aircraft carrier with more than 500 beautiful women sailors the way I was. At least John likes women, which is more than we can say about Hillary’s attitude toward, for instance, the women in Bill’s life, who at this point may constitute nearly the majority of the “women’s vote.”

These would have been interesting subjects to discuss with the Theodore Roosevelt shipmates, but time was up.

Back on the COD you’re buckled in and told to brace as if for a crash. Whereupon there is a crash. The catapult sends you squashed against your flight harness. And just when you think that everything inside your body is going to blow out your nose and navel, it’s over. You’re in steady, level flight.

A strange flight it is–from the hard and fast reality of a floating island to the fantasy world of American solid ground. In this never-never land a couple of tinhorn Second City shysters–who, put together, don’t have the life experience of the lowest ranking gob-with-a-swab cleaning a head on the Big Stick–presume to run for president of the United States. They’re not just running against the hero John McCain, they’re running against heroism itself and against almost everything about America that ought to be conserved.

I think PJ is getting a bit overenthusiastic about McCain, but he’s right enough on Hillary and Obama.

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