John McCain, Leader of the Party of Orwell

by Rick Rockwell

There’s a saying about John McCain: Love the man; hate his positions.

After watching the carefully orchestrated Republican National Convention this week, that saying no longer applies. At least, for this critic.

Full disclosure: during the last presidential election year, this writer was serving on Capitol Hill. The experience was eye-opening and depressing. Some of this, Sen. McCain (R-AZ) addressed in his acceptance speech for the presidential nomination on the closing night of the convention. McCain spoke of a culture in Washington where politicians served themselves first. The country be damned. Thus McCain’s slogan of “Country First.” (Also, a not so subtle swipe at Obamamania which looks like the cult of personality, American-style.)

During a year, with a lot of work for a Senate committee that McCain chaired, the Senate Commerce Committee, this writer came away believing few politicians were true to their oaths. McCain was one of the very few exceptions. Respect and admiration swelled for McCain, although this writer was working for the Democrats. McCain didn’t seem to care about party (as he underlined in his speech), instead he cared about the issues. He put Democrats and independents in key positions on his staff (sure, mostly Clintonites, but the point was made) and up until very recently he has had to pay for that maverick reputation with lukewarm support from the Republican base. In 2004, McCain was a leader to respect: much better than the indecisive Tom Daschle, leader of the Senate Democrats of the time, or the weak Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats now.

But the John McCain of 2004 (someone who presidential candidate and fellow Senator, John Kerry considered as a potential running mate) is not the same McCain of 2008. Today, McCain looks a lot like those other self-serving politicians: someone who will say or promise anything to achieve their goal.

The hecklers who interrupted McCain’s acceptance speech tried to point out his hypocrisy on his votes concerning veteran’s issues, energy policy, and more. But of course, they were shouted down and whisked away.

But watching McCain’s speech was all anyone really needed to realize that the war hero now is the leader of the party of Orwell. Not that George Orwell would join the Republicans. No, instead, he warned us about their promises of a dystopian future.

Remember, in Orwell’s classic 1984, the three party slogans:

• War is Peace

• Freedom is Slavery

• Ignorance is Strength.

Those slogans were laid out for all to see in McCain’s speech.

If you want peace, McCain reasoned, be prepared to confront our enemies. Be prepared to take on Iran. Or the Russians. (Despite criticisms, McCain’s strong response to Russia's invasion of Georgia is likely one of the moves he made in August that have kept him nearly on par with his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois.)

Want a better education? Then turn schools over completely to a consumer culture where parents and students will set the standards and decide curriculum. Teachers will be told what to teach and how to teach it.

McCain performed this same Orwellian trick throughout his speech. Want to save the planet? Then as the Republican chant goes: “Drill, baby, drill!” Energy independence (another cornerstone of the peace through strength reasoning) means the unconscionable policy of drilling for oil like there is no tomorrow to increase rather than decrease our carbon emissions in a time of global warming.

Want better service from your government? Then cut taxes. Cut spending. Cut government. The Orwellian logic: the same inefficient government we have now will get better if it is smaller. Just tell the folks in New Orleans what a smaller government did for them in 2005. Weren’t the Republicans holding their collective breath this week as Hurricane Gustav took a swipe at New Orleans? And isn’t it clear the smaller government hasn’t been able to provide the security for that city, and won’t have the levee system rebuilt for another three years, at the least.

After trying to sell those Orwellian propositions, there is no way to love McCain. Respect him for his achievements. Thank him for his service. And realize politicians are going to lie to us. It’s in their nature.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. John McCain campaigning in Louisiana in June is by dsb nola via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see the first part of McCain's acceptance speech in St. Paul, MN at the Republican convention, please check below.)

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Irena Schneider said...

As a rather disenchanted republican, I was quickly drawn to this article, and I felt that it really touched on an issue that may affect today's conception of the republican party, which simply isn't what it used to be. Though I am a student in professor Rockwell's Understanding Media class, I'd like to take media with a grain of salt and respectfully disagree with one of the final contentions in this article - that "the same inefficient government we have now will get better if it is smaller. Just tell the folks in New Orleans what a smaller government did for them in 2005."

To begin, I have almost entirely left the Republican Party to the libertarian party because republicans are no longer the "hands off", noninterventionist party that they used to be before the Great Depression. Yet for the past 70+ years, the U.S has been hooked onto our expansionist bureaucracy and all the social programs it entailed for the supposed good of the people ("supposed" in the sense that we can mention how social security is now on the verge of crippling our economy, how executive orders have become unprecedented, how civil rights can be withheld without our knowing, how war no longer requires congressional permission, how welfare has created a culture of broken families and dependence on government as a caretaker, etc.)

The Republican Party is simply no longer the celebrated pinnacle of the individual competitive American spirit. It is the big government of the democrats today. And no wonder. Once social policies worked for democrats, republicans responded not by reversing them, but by simply accommodating those social policies to their own party. Hence the growing recognition of the term "republicrats". Devotion to big government is bridging the gap between the parties, and politics becomes not about the people, but about the necessary political savy, the slogans, the beautiful words that propel one into the establishment of power. I agree completely that McCain does in fact follow those three tenets of Orwellian logic. However much we value "freedom", we are never truly free until we stop being the voluntary puppets of our government (i.e. stopping being dependent on its social care). Yet these tenets of logic apply just as equally to Obama, who has twisted and turned a whole excited populace on mere "hope" and gorgeous speeches. His proposed expansion of government seems like a wonderful change- and we continue being "ignorant", in pure orwellian terms; we continue to be hooked onto the political savvy of one politician who just as easily does all he can to make himself powerful. It's all established politics, not merely McCain politics.

With respect to the bit about Katrina- the failure happened not as a result of too little government (Republicans don't like small government anymore), but too much government. Who could have expected a tampered-with, self-conflicted bureaucracy to carry out social aid?

Republicans ought not to use the slogans of smaller government anymore, because those slogans only make them hypocrites, calling back to their traditions of long ago that no longer matter to their big-government senses. In truth, I believe that smaller government is not simply "the same inefficient government" as we have today. It is a philosophically pure commitment to individual freedom and responsibility. Though the establishment of McCain and Obama doesn't put it into practical terms, its concept still remains as the most un-orwellian, unfettered cause of liberty.

Rick Rockwell said...


Instead of a direct reaction or response, I would like to suggest further reading to understand my position. None of these pieces, by the way, are written by me, but after reading them, you may understand my viewpoint a bit better. First, a piece about independent politics. Next, something on left-wing politics (from someone who may be about as far to the left on the political scale as you are to the right). And finally, something from this week. After those, you may see why I framed my argument the way I did. I appreciate the time you took to read and comment in a thoughtful way.

dsb nola said...

With regard to the Katrina/New Orleans reference, I think what we're really talking about is neither too much nor too little government but just plain incompetent government. As a New Orleanian (that's my picture of McCain with this post, thus that's how I found my way here) I feel obligated to point out that Katrina per se did not cause the devastation and chaos y'all are referring to. We should be talking about levees, and accordingly the Army Corps of Engineers. I would point to John Barry's Rising Tide for reference: http://www.olemiss.edu/orgs/SGLC/MS-AL/book.htm

Regarding the lame FEMA response, I think it's pretty clear Bush cuts and Bush political appointees are to blame. The local government was ineffective as well, but all that's small potatoes compared to the shoddy work of the Army Corps.

I don't accept the libertarian argument that government is the problem. I just want competence in government.

Rick Rockwell said...

Thanks for the fine photo, dsb nola; great to have someone with access sharing.

I think we all agree that competency in government is a solution and the truth is that is harder and harder to find. You also rightly point out the record of the Army Corps in such projects is not good... and filled with controversy.

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