Generational Torch


Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Wars of John McCain,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008, pp. 40-54.

We knew that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was in part, to finish his Dad’s work. Now we learn in the October 2008 issue of The Atlantic that John McCain’s position on Iraq is shaped by his father’s perspective on Vietnam. Admiral Jack McCain was a staunch proponent of staying the course in Vietnam, and Kissinger would take him to visit Nixon when the President’s mood was somber. The piece mentions that while McCain downplays this factor, it remains important in forging his views. To our knowledge, there exists no study comparable to Jacob Weisberg’s on the Bush family (The Bush Tragedy, New York, Random House, 2008). But perhaps here also is a convoluted dynamic. To what extent do John McCain’s perspectives on Iraq reflect some search for validation on the part of the boy inexorably destined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grand-father by attending Annapolis? Do they in any way manifest an attempt to exonerate the record of a mediocre student, who graduated fifth from the bottom of his class? Can they be seen as a way of reaching back to a father too often absent?


In John McCain. An American Odyssey, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995) Robert Timberg gives some insight on the father-son relationship. He mentions the constant absence of Admiral McCain, and the difficulties later caused by his drinking. He is kind in suggesting that McCain never became the prisoner of the culture wars on Vietnam, and illustrates this at some length by describing the respect shown by McCain to Bill Clinton, the icon par excellence of the counter-culture.

In The Nightingale’s Song, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995) a fascinating read, the same author takes us deep into the emotional and mental framework of five men whose lives were shaped both by the trauma of Vietnam, and by Reagan’s successful obliteration of it. Through the voices of Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Jim Webb and John McCain, we recognize the source of the fractures and wounds, the turn to denial or anger, emotions which still divide society today.