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John McCain's Integrity Problem

By Ralph Peters

Senator John McCain has an integrity problem: He has too much of it. At a time when would-be presidential candidates in both parties alter their views depending on the prevailing winds, McCain stands up for what he truly believes.

And he's paying for it.

McCain is the only presidential aspirant in either party who refuses to pander. It may cost him the election, as we, the people, reward those who tell us what pollsters decide we want to hear, rather than supporting the honorable few still willing to tell us uncomfortable truths.

In the interests of my own integrity, let me acknowledge that I actively back the senator's candidacy. I have never supported the campaign of any political candidate before, and doubt that I will support another in the future. But, to me, McCain is the great exception, the true leader, tempered by adversity, who could bring this country together. He's the man the hour demands.

I'm convinced that, if nominated by his party, McCain would win the general election by a substantial margin. But he may not be able to gain the nomination--because, throughout the primary season, both parties are in thrall to the hardliners on their fringes.

Yes, McCain's a conservative. Personally, I find a number of his domestic positions well to the right of my own beliefs (and I'm on his right flank on a number of foreign-policy issues). But there are three decisive points for me:

--I'm willing to compromise on some of my pet issues for the sake of strong, conscientious leadership; after all, democracy is about finding common ground, about give and take--otherwise, we might as well be in Baghdad.

--I prefer a candidate who tells me where he or she really stands over one who tries to please the audience of the moment. I want a president, not a parrot.

--Of all the serious candidates in the field, only John McCain would have the ability to unify our nation after the election. Every other leading candidate would be divisive. And the country can ill afford a third-straight polarizing presidency.

McCain's biography is well-known. A combat pilot, he was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam and spent years in a Hanoi prison (one many, many degrees worse than Guantanamo). His injuries did not receive adequate treatment and he endured torture--without breaking. When his captors learned that he was an admiral's son, they attempted to use him for propaganda purposes, offering to release him from the hell-hole. McCain refused. He would not leave his comrades (much as he now refuses to abandon our troops in Iraq).

Still suffering from his wounds, McCain returned home and dedicated the remainder of his life to public service out of uniform. He soon revealed a different form of courage--the guts to do what's right, even as peers do what's easy.

With McCain refusing to throw in the towel on a troubled war, the press has found a new darling in Barack Obama. Obama may be talented, but he's inexperienced, worrisomely naïve and, at the same time, more icily calculating than Senator Hilary Clinton. But the media is composed of herd animals. And the herd has gotten Obama's scent and likes it. Journalists see him as a politically correct JFK-lite, perfectly packaged for the 24/7 age: Obama might not make a good president, but he makes good copy.

McCain's biggest problem is, in the end, is that we've become accustomed to candidates who trip over themselves as they rush to tell us what their campaign staffs have determined we want to hear. We expect candidates to make us feel good. Above all, we want candidates who make the complex problems we face in this difficult world sound easy to solve.

But those problems are not easy to solve. And candidates who distort the issues to make us feel good are the equivalent of cheap sex: You may not like who you wake up with in the morning.

Niche-issue voters terrorize the primaries where candidates speak with all the integrity of a teenage boy pawing his girlfriend in the backseat. The race for the presidential nomination emulates American Idol and, especially during the primary season, it's a race to the bottom.

Last week, Senate Democrats staged a goofy political stunt, a legislative pajama party. Here are two brief excerpts from the statement John McCain delivered in the Senate in the early morning hours:

"...No battle will have been won or lost, no enemy will have been captured or killed, no ground will have been taken or surrendered, no soldier will have survived or been wounded, died or come home because we spent an entire night delivering our poll-tested message points, spinning our sound-bites, arguing with each other, and substituting amateur theatrics for statesmanship.

"...The public's judgment of me I will know soon enough. I will accept it, as I must. But whether it is favorable or unforgiving, I will stand where I stand, and take comfort from my confidence that I took my responsibilities to my country seriously, and despite the mistakes I have made as a public servant and the flaws I have as an advocate, I tried as best I could to help the country we all love remain as safe as she could be in an hour of serious peril."

Can you imagine any other would-be candidate speaking those words? Convincingly?

In this day of destructive polarization and bitter war, we, the people, must find the strength to break the power of the money men and our woefully corrupt political parties--parties that seek to exploit and deepen our national wounds. We need a president who can work civilly with elected officials whose beliefs differ from his own; who will tell us the truth, rather than what his handlers insist we want to hear; who will stand against special interest groups to defend the rights of the rest of us; and who will always do what's right, not what's easy.

That man is John McCain.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, a strategist and columnist, and the author of the new book, Wars Of Blood And Faith, The Conflicts That Will Shape the Twenty-First Century.”

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