05 Oct 2008

The Warrior and the Priest

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The election of 2008 reminds Fred Barnes of the election of 1912.

John McCain, restless and emotional, couldn’t resist the temptation to join the battle to rescue our financial markets and save the economy. It was the biggest and most important fight around, bigger and more important than his campaign scrap with Barack Obama. Being engaged in the action–in the arena–is where McCain always wants to be. So he cast his presidential campaign aside, temporarily, and headed back to Washington. The campaign could wait. It might even benefit.

Obama, placid and professorial, had a different reaction to the fight over the bailout. Even before McCain’s maneuver he’d rejected the idea of putting his campaign on hold and joining the legislative battle. He’d be available if needed. An abrupt change in plans, a sudden shift, is not his style. His campaign would go on. He returned to Washington reluctantly. If he hadn’t, his campaign might have suffered.

The contrast here is not only dramatic. It’s unusually revealing about the two candidates and how they might act as president.

There’s an analogy that captures the difference: the warrior and the priest. McCain the warrior, Obama the priest. (If “priest” seems confusing, substitute “professor.”)

McCain has been a player in every major fight, in war and in Washington, for more than four decades. As far back as 1962, he waited in Florida as a Navy pilot for the order to attack during the Cuban missile crisis. (The order never came.) As a senator, he’s never stayed on the sidelines. As a candidate, he likes the rough-and-tumble and unpredictable turns of town hall meetings.

Obama prefers set speeches delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, a reflection of his more aloof and less engaged approach to politics and policy. In Democratic primary debates, he tended to be passive. Where McCain is an activist, Obama is more a visionary. As a senator, he’s involved himself only on the fringes of big issues.

Long before the McCain-Obama race, the warrior and the priest comparison was applied to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in a book by John Milton Cooper Jr., a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. The Warrior and the Priest was published in 1983 and was not widely acclaimed, but it’s become a cult classic.

Cooper described Roosevelt, the warrior, as “exuberant and expansive,” a man who “epitomized the enjoyment of power.” He gained fame “through well-cultivated press coverage of his exploits as a reformer, rancher, hunter, police commissioner, war hero, and engaging personality.” And TR was “associated conspicuously and consistently with one issue above all others–war.” Sounds like McCain.

Wilson, the priest, was “disciplined and controlled,” Cooper wrote. “He seemingly embodied a less joyful exercise of power.” Until he ran for office, Wilson was “a spectator and a bystander.” Roosevelt was a “tireless evangelist for international activism,” but Wilson had “a more pacific vision.” His entry into politics at the highest level was created by his reputation as “a widely regarded public speaker.” Obama isn’t Wilson personified, but he comes close. …

In 1912, Roosevelt and Wilson met in the presidential race. The priest won the election. But there was a complication that hampered TR. There was another candidate, Republican president William Howard Taft, who finished third. Absent Taft’s presence, the warrior would have won. McCain ought to keep this in mind.

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