We're now fully into what pundits like to call the "silly season" of the 2008 Presidential campaign where the candidates sound more like bickering children than potential leaders of the most powerful nation on earth:
Obama: "McCain's making fun of my name and says I don't look like the other kids!" McCain: "I did no such thing - liar, liar, pants on fire! Hey, why does he get more face time than me? Who does he think he is - Paris Hilton? Teacher's pet!"
As a result, I felt that Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, he of the famed book "The Purpose-Driven Life," did the nation a great service with the Saddleback Civil Forum on August 16th featuring the two candidates. In my opinion, the format of the forum and the nature of the questions asked did more to help voters take the true measure of these men than any other event to date. These are my personal observations based on their presentations that night. I sincerely hope the forum and the numerous post-mortems of its outcome, including this one, might help people make what ought to be a serious decision come November.
First of all, let me say that despite the despair some people feel over the choices put before them, I believe we have two extraordinary gentlemen on the ballot. There are aspects of both men that I found compelling and attractive. In fact, if I could pick and choose character traits and experience from both men, I could create the perfect presidential candidate! My uncensored personal impressions follow.
I believe Senator McCain's answers to the questions put before him at the forum were representative of a warrior leader - clear, unambiguous and decisive. Some criticize his certainty and point to President Bush's decisiveness as a lack of intellectual curiosity that has led us to disaster. Regardless of the complexity and nuance of a issue, however, at some point a decision must be made and executed with confidence and competence. In the end, I don't think the American people are disillusioned with President Bush because of his confidence; I think it's the competence with which his administration carried out his decisions that frustrates them. I trust that Senator McCain's experience and expertise will complement his decisiveness and lead to better outcomes.
John McCain's life story is captivating and powerful. He endured imprisonment, torture and the specter of death for five and a half years because he believed in the time-honored warrior's creed of "Duty, Honor and Country." Regardless of the sins he's committed since that time, whether personal or professional, one learns a great deal about what a man or woman is made of when their life is on the line, and John McCain refused an opportunity his captors put before him for an early exit from the hell in which he found himself because he didn't want to dishonor his family or the country he served. This leads me to believe that when the heat is on, he will put the interests of his country before his own. That is a reassuring thought, particularly in the midst of a bruising campaign when it's hard to see virtue in either candidate.
There are those who claim he is running on his status as a former POW and that alone shouldn't be a qualification for President. It isn't his POW designation on which he's running, however, and this is where his opponents ought to be ashamed of themselves for challenging him on this front. Crisis doesn't create character, it reveals it, and it's what this experience reveals about his character, not the experience itself, that tells us what kind of man he is and how he will respond when he is tested and has to make decisions which may harm him personally but are in the nation's best interests. I daresay his critics have for the most part not found themselves in a crisis of this nature where they were forced to choose between their own lives or a cause greater than themselves. I know I haven't and therefore I do not think it appropriate for me to challenge John McCain's honor from the comfort of my office chair as many of them have done.
Finally, I was impressed with John McCain's humility, but this is a character trait he has demonstrated throughout his public life. While the audience was awed by his statement about the failure of his first marriage as his greatest moral failure, the fact is he has always been honest and humble when it comes to his personal shortcomings. He has written and spoken in the past about his sins from his first marriage, his forced signing of a war crimes confession while a POW, and he lack of candor during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency on the issue of the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol of South Carolina:
"I made several mistakes in my campaign. I regret them, but I can live with their consequences because I believe them to have been simple errors in judgment and not an unprincipled act. Only once, I believe, did I act in an unprincipled way. But once is enough, and I want to tell the people of South Carolina and all Americans that I sincerely regret breaking my promise to always tell you the truth. . . .
"My ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and I am sure that many, maybe all of them, fought with courage and with faith that they were serving a cause greater than themselves. But I don't believe their service, however distinguished, needs to be commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts, people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors.
"Those ancestors of mine might have fought honorably, they might have fought to uphold a principle they believed was just. But they fought to sever the union of our great nation, a cause that would have terribly harmed America, perhaps irreparably, and, for a time at least, perpetuated the grave injustice of slavery. They fought on the wrong side of American history. That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag. That is the honest answer I never gave to a fair question. . . .'
"As I admitted, I should have done this earlier, when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So, I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth. . . .
"I do not intend for this apology to help me evade criticism for my failure. I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept it, all of it. I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved. I don't seek absolution. Like anyone else, I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency, and hope that in the end, my character is judged from the totality of my life, and not by its flaws alone."
As a Christian, I greatly respect his public and probably humiliating acts of repentance when he's failed. Such candor and contrition speaks more to me of the substance of his faith than whether or not he "talks the talk" as well as other politicians. Social conservatives who base their public policy positions on a Biblical worldview ought to be assured of the substance of his convictions in his plea to "have mercy on me, a sinner."
With that, let me offer my impressions of the other candidate on the Saddleback stage, Senator Barack Obama. Senator Obama is perhaps one of the most gifted candidates to seek the Presidency in many years. He is an extraordinary communicator, not just because of his soaring oratory but also his alacrity with the written word as evidenced primarily by his two best-sellers, "Dreams From My Father" (which I haven't read) and "The Audacity of Hope" (which I have read and encourage everyone to do so if they really want to learn more about him). He has a powerful intellect and the ability to evaluate issues with a certain detachment that permits dissenting views and a broader perspective. He's a thinker of considerable breadth and depth, an aspect of his personality which appeals to me as a continuous learner. He's disciplined and focused, rarely straying off message. To top it all off, he's handsome, hip and carries himself like a man who's very sure of who he is - a campaign manager's dream candidate.
I felt, however, that his answers to the questions put to him reflect precisely who he is - a scholarly, intellectual man whose equivocation on highly charged issues makes him come across as risk-averse and unwilling to take a stand that might cost him his carefully constructed persona. His answer to the question of when babies get human rights, that it's "above my pay grade," may have been flip and hip, but he revealed nothing of what he truly believes on an issue of vital moral importance to millions of voters and, despite his juristic expertise, I don't believe he thought through the legal implications of such an answer. If he truly believes he's not capable of deciding when human life begins, then he shouldn't be promoting policies that result in the killing of unborn children because he can't say for certain whether or not they're human beings. In our legal system, reasonable doubt in cases where the state's action would be to take a life is enough to prohibit that action from taking place. As National Review editor Andrew McCarthy put it:
"I believe it is unquestionably the law of the United States...that due process mandates that no person may be deprived of life by state action unless every factual predicate legally necessary to validate the state action has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt...
"...In the United States, we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt on all facts necessary to the judgment before someone is killed by the machinery of the justice system. Nothing less will do."
While both men are running as people who transcend party and philosophical divisions and while I like what I hear from Barack Obama, Benjamin Franklin once said that "Well done is better than well said" and on that score, Seantor Obama comes up short. Granted, Obama's legislative portfolio is thinner than McCain's, in part because he hasn't served as a public official for very long but also because his rhetoric isn't reflected in his actions. While he gets points for agitating black churchgoers about responsible fatherhood and offhandedly mentioning merit pay for teachers as a possibility, he's never sponsored bipartisan legislation that would put his political stature within his party at risk. His comment about his public opposition to the Iraq war being his toughest decision was unconvincing to me. Despite President Bush's popularity and the positive progress of the war at the time he stated his opposition, the political price a Democratic state senator from a liberal Chicago legislative district would pay for such a stance is relatively small.
In contrast, Senator McCain has co-sponsored major legislation with leading Democrats throughout his Senate career that put him at odds with the Republican Party, and he has not been afraid to go against the grain even if it cost him personally. The struggles he is having in this campaign with the conservative base of the GOP are the direct consequence of his willingness to put his principles before his party or his own electoral chances. Whatever your opinion of the war in Iraq, his lonely stance in favor of the surge looks prescient nowadays and demonstrated real leadership on his part. He is a crusader for earmark reform, campaign finance reform, ethics reform - in short, his record is one of consistently fighting for change that makes government more accountable to the people. Senator Obama simply doesn't have the substance to back up his statements. I think that the deliberative nature that comes with being a thinker can also lead one to be calculating and cautious in one's actions, particularly if they could detract from some other goal or purpose, in this case becoming President.
I also found Senator Obama's comments about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas condescending and beneath him as someone who promotes himself as a unifier and a healer. I expected him to disagree with Justice Thomas' jurisprudence and he didn't disappoint; he also questioned the judicial philosophies of Justices Scalia and Roberts. His comment that Clarence Thomas wasn't "a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation" was simply parroting an old liberal line about Clarence Thomas as an intellectual lightweight, an accusation with barely disguised racial connotations. In the 17 years BEFORE he was "elevated" to the Supreme Court, Thomas, a cum laude graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and a graduate of Yale Law School, was the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Missouri, a corporate attorney with Monsanto, a legislative assistant to Senator John Danforth, an Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Senator Obama is asking us to elect him President of the United States on a resume that is far less compelling. What's more disturbing to me is the implication that the lone black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court is somehow not intellectually up to the job. When Senator Harry Reid made similar comments a few years ago, he was admonished in a letter from the Congressional Black Caucus for "stereotypes and caricatures." I doubt that Senator Obama will receive a letter from the CBC, however. It's like the "n-word" where we can use it on our own like Jesse Jackson did recently but whites aren't allowed to utter even words that sound similar but don't mean the same thing. Remember the ridiculous controversy over a gay white D.C. attorney's use of the word "niggardly" to describe the city budget? He was forced to resign because a black colleague perceived it as a racial slur and filed a complaint. In fact, the word means "stingy" or "miserly" and has no racial context whatsoever. Only after a protest by the gay community was the resignation overturned.
You see, Senator Obama is following in the footsteps of his liberal heroes by making racially charged comments about black conservatives and not being held accountable for them. Former Maryland lieutenant governor and current GOPAC chairman Michael Steele can be portrayed as "Simple Sambo" with blackface, large red lips and nappy hair but it's OK because Steele is a Republican. Condoleeza Rice can be called "mammy," "Aunt Jemima" or "house nigger" but it's OK because she's a Republican. If Senator Obama wants to impress me with his commitment to national unity, he ought not fall into the trap of making statements about the intellectual weaknesses of black people who have a worldview different than his own.
Lest you think I was not at all impressed by Senator Obama's performance at the forum, let me say that I thought his statements about the importance of Christ in his life were sincere, even though I know from his previous statements that he has fallen into the trap of post-modern thinking that cannot acknowledge the exclusivity of Christianity as "the way, the truth and the life." He is obviously very comfortable with the language of faith and his efforts to bridge the gap between his party and people of faith can only benefit the Democrats and the nation. I believe he is sincere about helping "the least of these" in the spirit of Jesus's words in Matthew 25, although I regret that he doesn't include unborn children in that number.
In the end, I came away with a better impression of John McCain the man, and my impression of Barack Obama the man didn't change significantly. Despite his newness, his eloquence,his language of unity - in short, despite the pretty wrapping - I still see a liberal senator not unlike John Kerry in 2004. For all his talk about change, other than the nuances of faith he brings to the liberal playbook, there's not a lot of evidence to support his claims. He needs more time to build a record of true bipartisanship and less adherence to liberal orthodoxy before he can legitimately present himself to us as a true unifier. Of course, whether he has the time to amass a record of accomplishment before he becomes President rests on our decision in just 75 days.