By Ellen Goodman
Is it any wonder that John McCain was feeling a tad neglected? There was Barack Obama on a nine-day trip through eight countries with three network anchors and all John got was a lousy T-shirt. Or to be more exact, all he got was a ride in George H.W. Bush’s golf cart and a rejection slip from The New York Times’ Op-Ed editor.
Even McCain’s inner circle began to get snarky. They keep referring to Obama as “The One” and complain that the maverick boytoy McCain has been replaced in the media’s heart by a new trophy wife named Barack. The straight talker’s Web site even posted a video of “The Media is in Love,” a montage of fawning sound bites against a soundtrack of Frankie Valli singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Never mind that Frankie’s “Eyes” was a No. 2 hit in 1967, a year when Obama was 6. For some reason, McCain’s cultural references have a sell-by date of 1970. It’s like the strange “Summer of Love” ad that tries to place Obama in the upheavals of 1968 when he was headed to second grade.
But it wasn’t just Frankie Valli that makes me feel that the Republican is locked into a 40-year-old time frame. It’s the debate about Iraq itself.
Gary Hart once said, “In a way, John is refighting the Vietnam War.” For a long time, the former prisoner of war has believed that Vietnam should have, could have had a different ending. Americans lost the war because they lost their will. He’s thought more about the sorry last chapter of that war than its foolish beginning.
So, too, his attention on Iraq has been less on the war’s origin than on some undefined victorious conclusion. McCain jumped the shark when he accused Obama of wanting to win an election even if it meant losing a war. But even before that intemperate charge, he said something equally damning: “The fact is, if we had done what Sen. Obama wanted to do, we would have lost.”
McCain starts the historical clock running after the invasion and even after the surge. For all his complaints about the media, he’s been able to focus the Iraq debate on the surge’s success. He has said repeatedly, “I’m proud that I was right. That’s what judgment is about. That’s why I’m qualified to lead.”
But what if “we had done what Obama wanted to do” in 2002, when he was a lowly state senator and an opponent of invasion? We wouldn’t have roared into this disaster. What if we dated judgment to the prewar days? Is McCain still proud that he was right?
I am well aware that we cannot rewind the past. We focus now on the least catastrophic exit plan. When the Iraqi prime minister and Obama agree on a timetable, I synchronize my watch. But it’s still fair to measure a candidate by his view on our entrance to this war.
The current president has never admitted that we invaded Iraq on false premises or phony pre-emptives or fictitious weapons of mass destruction. Bush will breeze home to Texas without a modicum of guilt. Do we want another president like that?
Let’s go back to a McCain Op-Ed that did run in The New York Times before the invasion: “Only an obdurate refusal to face unpleasant facts ... could allow one to believe that we have rushed to war.” Let’s go back to an interview with Tim Russert when McCain was asked if he would still have gone to war even knowing there were no WMDs. “Yes,” he answered without missing a beat. The only regret or anger expressed by McCain is that we didn’t have enough troops earlier.
Finally, in the recent, rejected Op-Ed, McCain said that by advocating timetables for withdrawal, Obama was “emulating the worst mistake of the Bush administration by waving the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner prematurely.” Dear John: Wasn’t the “worst mistake of the Bush administration” launching the invasion?
This is not a summer of love. Frankie Valli is no longer a teen idol. Iraq is not Vietnam. But Americans are in a $10 billion-a-month war with more than 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded. We’ve watched the current president deny and deny that he was wrong in invading Iraq. If there’s a bottom-line, rock-solid qualification for being the next president, it’s a candidate who acknowledges just how badly we were misled. So far, Obama’s The (Only) One.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group