Yesterday we walked through an overview of some potential debilities associated with being old and took a look at what is known of Senator John McCain’s health in relation to his age.
Today, we will discuss some of his mistakes, misstatements and flip-flops to see if we think they should be of concern in man who may sit in the most powerful (though diminished over the past eight years) office in the western world.
With mainstream media and everyone online concentrated this week on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Senator McCain's past and ongoing errors - deliberate and/or unintentional - may seem like old news. But a constant problem in politics (and elsewhere in the culture) is that everyone seems to have the memory of a gnat; politicians hope for it, promote it, depend on it.
It is our job as responsible voters and citizens to weigh the words of candidates, compare them to facts, ferret out inconsistencies, assess their capability and, allowing a degree forbearance for human fallibility, evaluate their judgment and decide on their suitability for the highest position of leadership in the land. In those respects, this is not old news.
The primary season for the 2008 election was the longest in history. Day after day for 18 months, candidates of both parties criss-crossed the country often hitting several cities a day where they were required to be energetic, sharp, on message and make clear, compelling arguments for their positions while ingratiating themselves with voters to convince us they are the right man or woman for the job.
The pace is grueling at any age and on that alone, a certain number of minor mistakes is inevitable and understandable. If a candidate says “Iran” when he means “Iraq,” it’s not important – once or twice – particularly if it happens in a list of issues and not in a sustained speech or interview about the countries.
On numerous occasions during the campaign, even after the error was pointed out to him, Senator McCain has referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that has not existed since 1993. No one in a position to vote on legislation involving foreign nations should misspeak in the same way so frequently. Still, it’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
In July, when asked about Afghanistan, Senator McCain told Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America,
"I think it's serious…It's a serious situation, but there's a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border."
Unless the entire country of Iran is considered the border between Iraq and Pakistan, this is not a misstatement a man who considers himself a Middle East expert should make, especially when discussing Afghanistan. Even so, I could be persuaded that it was a slip of the tongue.
But there are other kinds of errors Senator McCain makes that are more problematic.
In March 2008, during a Middle East visit, Senator McCain twice said – in a radio interview and later in a news conference – that Iran is training al Qaeda members in Iraq, confusing Shiite Iran with Sunni al Qaeda. When a reporter questioned his assertion, McCain repeated it:
“Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media,” said McCain, “that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”
He would have stuck with it had not Senator Joe Lieberman stepped in to whisper the correction in his ear. With the specificity of his remarks, it is difficult to believe this was a misstatement by a tired campaigner, who claims expertise on the Middle East. It is, instead, ignorance or an inability to remember who the players are in the Iraq war. Either one is frightening in a U.S. senator, let alone a head of state who approves or rejects diplomatic and military plans based on his knowledge of the issue.
In July, attacking Senator Obama’s position on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Senator McCain made an error that that I find impossible to dismiss.
“This is the same organization,” he said, “that I voted to condemn as a terrorist organization when [the Kyl-Lieberman] amendment was on the floor of the United States Senate [in September 2007]. Senator Obama refused to vote.”
The problem in this case is that Senator McCain was not in Washington when that vote was taken; he was in New York. (Senator Obama was in New Hampshire, as CNN reported, so either they were both busy elsewhere or both “refused" to vote.)
Any reason that could be given for this “mistake” is hard to accept. Even granting that no candidate can reasonably be expected to recall what state he was in on a given campaign day months before, certainly any senator can remember if he was in the chamber to vote for a bill as widely discussed as Kyl-Lieberman was at the time. Plus, Senator McCain has voted so infrequently during the 18-month primary campaign, he should be able to remember which few he did vote for. So either Senator McCain believes he can lie and the press won’t notice or he believes he voted for the amendment. The first is foolish; the second may be age catching up with him.
It is impossible and not necessary to document all Senator McCain’s many factual mistakes, but one more bears mention. On 7 July, at a town hall meeting in Denver in answer to a question from a young woman about Social Security, John McCain said:
"Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed."
Similar to his Kyl-Lieberman mistake, either John McCain is ignorant of how Social Security is designed to work or he has forgotten. The first calls into question his knowledge of the most successful social program in history. The second makes it impossible to seriously consider his argument for privatizing Social Security – or not privatizing it, depending on which day he is speaking; he has claimed both. So his answer to the young woman is not credible as a simple misstatement.
As I have written here in the past, I do not object to flip-flops on their face. Any leader should be expected to change his position when presented with new facts and/or events that make a previous position untenable. The problem with almost all issue flip-flops, however, is that politicians do not explain what brought them to a new conclusion, so they appear to be pandering and untrustworthy.
This is as true of Senator McCain as other politicians, but McCain has also claimed, sometimes, that his flip-flops are not new positions or that he never said what he did say before. There are a lot of videos on YouTube documenting his self-contradictions – too many to dismiss them all as memory lapses due to a busy campaign schedule.
The number of McCain flip-flops is astounding, so it's more efficient for me and you to let MSNBC’s Keith Olberman recount some of them. This was broadcast on 30 June 2008, and runs 3:31 minutes.
Until I undertook the research for this series, I didn’t realize how many inconsistencies there are in Senator McCain’s record and campaign. The question for voters is what they mean and what they say about the man, his capabilities and his judgment. Are McCain’s mistakes, misstatements and flip-flops understandable in an exhausting, hard-fought campaign or do they indicate that common debilities of age are diminishing his cognitive capacity?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Gullible considers some personal photographs in Focused on Distance (A Love Story).]