The most affecting part of John McCain’s acceptance speech was also the most surprising: McCain’s admission that he was broken by torture. I had read a little about this before on the internet – suggesting that McCain had illegally collaborated with the enemy. More generally, I had heard that virtually no one is actually able to resist extreme physical torture; eventually everyone breaks down. But McCain admitting it seemed both heartfelt and somewhat shocking.
A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.
When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn't know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.
I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.
I remembered a line from Orwell about any life "viewed from the inside" as a failure. I hadn't remembered the line immediately preceding it:
Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.
Roger Simon also mentioned the same passage from McCain's speech, after noting Obama's grudging recent admission on the Surge:
More interesting is the snippet from O’Reilly of Obama acknowledging that the Surge was a great success while seemingly not being able to admit that he was wrong about it. You would think it wouldn ‘t be that difficult, but he struggled as if admitting an affair. Compare that with McCain who in the midst of his acceptance speech, seen by more even than Obama’s, acknowledged to the world that he was broken under the pressure of North Vietnamese torture. What we have before us is the pretension of honesty (Obama) versus honesty (McCain). In a certain way it relates to the Oprah Show, which has always seemed to me an “as if” production: we are all “open” here, it purports to say. But to paraphrase Orwell, “some people are more open than others.” I suspect the public senses this and, ultimately, knows the difference. We shall see.
Although Obama does seem to be more resistant to admitting error than most (and though he wrote two autobiographies by the age of 45), Obama has sometimes shown a self-deprecating side. Indeed, there are moments of effective modesty in the Audacity of Hope: Obama’s nuanced and winning account of Peggy Noonan’s taking him to task for comparing himself to Lincoln in an essay (he was sort of asked to do so by the editor, but he admits that Noonan wasn’t necessarily unfair), and Obama’s description of his troubles in his 2004 Senatorial debates responding to his opponent’s criticisms of Obama’s positions as un-Christian.
Yet McCain’s confession was of a different order.
My first thought was to be struck by how honest it was; that helped make the rest of McCain's speech seem (and perhaps be) more genuinely felt.
My second thought was more cynical: was McCain trying to make a pre-emptive strike against a forthcoming onslaught that he collaborated with the Communists?
My third thought was whether it’s necessarily a good thing for McCain to believe that he was not “my own man anymore. I was my country's.”
What do you think?