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The McCain phenomenon offered us a hint of a better way

John McCain got our attention.

While some, especially Democrats, enjoyed the wild Republican donnybrook McCain instigated, others see a stirring of deeper waters. Amid several years of plenty, after a complacent stretch of idealistically arid national life, it is a surprise to find citizens, many of them the young and supposedly alienated, coming out to vote for quaint old concepts such as reform and even heroism.

It doesn’t matter whether we agree with McCain on anything, or whether he is our kind of hero. In fact, there is little in McCain’s political record that matches what this paper stands for. But the fuss he caused says people want something more exalted than business as usual. What grabbed the public imagination was his crusade for campaign finance reform and his taking on the powerful tobacco industry. His call for an end to the buying and selling of political power, for an end to special interests with politicians in their pockets, struck some deep chord. He reminded us that in this age of greed and graft our democracy is only nominal.

It doesn’t matter, either, that McCain should lose in the end. The intensity with which Republicans closed ranks and backed his opponent is reminiscent of the desperate tenacity with which sick regimes have clung to power and privilege throughout history. While one might hope for more nobility, it is hard, in ordinary human terms, to blame Republicans or their financial backers for kicking and screaming: They have grown accustomed to wallowing at a trough more wide and deep than the nation has ever seen.

In a wonderful cross-fertilization of mutual interests they -- the establishment, people call them -- endorsed and threw money at George W. Bush. Young Bush is no villain. He’s too bland for that. Handsome and amiable, he is derisively referred to as an empty suit, an insult in most circles but just what the political establishment needed, eager to fill that cipher suit with their sundry aspirations and wants.

Plato once complained that in simple things, such as mending our shoes, we require experts with expertise, while in politics we assume that anyone who knows how to get votes knows how to govern our lives. A popular metaphor this political season is the elephant in the living room. Poor Bush is the ultimate elephant, begging the question of why he was raised so effortlessly to such unseemly eminence.

Then came McCain. It wasn’t so much the man himself. Another cliché of the moment is the McCain phenomenon. In other words, there is something behind the man: the hint of an idea, of a challenge, of some better way, even in these good times, than this still so unsatisfactory American dream.

“A new world is only a new mind,” wrote poet William Carlos Williams. One can change one’s mind and be a different person than yesterday. Many can change their minds and cause a new world. Not at once but a little at a time. A nation’s is such a big, unwieldy mind, it changes slowly. But it does at times change -- just look back at our history. Sometimes we can see it coming and sometimes it creeps up on us.

Utopians, of course, are ever hoping for that big turnaround. So, though, are Christians. So is everyone -- it’s the human condition; it’s faith, hope and charity running loose upon earth.

This highfalutin speculation may be placing too great a burden on the McCain shoulders, which -- just ask his colleagues -- are made of quite common clay. It may be that, like the weather in the Midwest, this is a false spring.

Yet, for a moment in this very young millennium, there was a phenomenon. Beyond the name-calling and the same old lingo, there were touches of another spring. It wasn’t Republican or Democrat; it was human. The eternal aspiration sometimes grows wings and rises above itself and in real life makes us better at living together. Poet W.B. Yeats once heard such sounds of promise in the air and asked: “Is there a nation-wide multiform reverie, every mind passing through a stream of suggestion, and the streams acting upon one another …?”

We all know well: There would be joy in Mudville, and a new optimism and altruism in the air -- a whole new reverie -- if just for one year we abandoned politics as usual.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000