Old Warrior


Republicans waited too late to nominate John McCain. When he ran in 2000, he was bright and alert, but they chose George W. Bush, the pseudo good old boy and country-wrecker. Now they want to hand the presidency to McCain, soon to be 72 years old. He’s not up to it.

The senator has made eight trips to Iraq. The Iraq War, he claims, is his specialty. He said he’s willing to keep American troops in country for 100 years. Well, how can a guy who has been so focused on the war confuse al-Qaida, which is a Sunni group, with Shiite extremists?

He did that three times on his last trip. Three times. That’s like confusing the New York Yankees with the Boston Red Sox. On another trip to Iraq, he came back to the U.S. and told people it was so safe he could stroll around a marketplace. He neglected to mention that he was surrounded by security forces, including helicopter gunships hovering overhead, during his walk until he was called on it by a journalist.

Forty years ago, McCain was a hero. It was a noble thing he did when he refused a Vietnamese offer to be set free and chose to remain with the other POWs. He’s a patriot. He’s brave. He also finished near the bottom of his Naval Academy class. He’s never pretended to be a scholar. Now he’s nearly 72 years old, and if he ever did understand the Middle East, he obviously doesn’t now.

Al-Qaida people are Sunni Muslims of the Wahabi sect. That’s the equivalent of the American Puritans. They are very much fundamentalist. Iran is a Shiite country. Shiites and Sunnis are roughly comparable to the Catholics and Protestants when people in both religions took their beliefs extremely seriously.

So, unlike what McCain kept saying, Iran is not training or supplying al-Qaida. When we decided to go to war against Afghanistan, the Iranians were helpful because both the Taliban and al-Qaida are Sunni. The Iranians support Shiite militias and Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is no evidence that they support al-Qaida. On one of the three occasions, Sen. Joe Lieberman corrected McCain, but he made the same mistake again on two other occasions.

McCain’s handlers, of course, will try to confine him to prepared scripts. They don’t want him talking off the cuff because he has a tendency to wander off the subject. Well-disciplined handlers, coupled with a lazy and inattentive press, could elect a near comatose person, and the public would never know it. McCain may have good genes and physically live to a ripe old age. I sincerely hope he does. But the organ you should be concerned about in a presidential race is the brain.

Bearing in mind that nobody ever accused McCain of being a brilliant thinker even in his prime, you should be alert for signs of forgetfulness and confusion. Presidents don’t have to fight or run marathons. They have to absorb and assess a great deal of information, often conflicting information, and they have to form very sound judgments. Unless they are going to be helpless captives of their staff, they have to be well-read and continue to read and to seek information "outside the box." Otherwise, they are just puppets and don’t know it. Presidents need sharp minds and almost boundless energy.

Shakespeare wrote, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries … we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures."

McCain’s flood tide was in 2000, and he missed it. It’s sad but true. He was qualified to be president then; he is not now. We can put it down as another of those missed opportunities that mark our lives as vividly as our successes. The old warrior no longer knows who the enemy is or where he is located.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.