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Character Counts: Of John McCain and his Critics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Tuesday's election returns continue to reverberate: Mitt is now moot, Mike Huckabee is running stronger than ever (for vice-president), and John McCain, now the GOP's presidential nominee-in-waiting, is in trouble. But only with capital-C, talk show Conservatives.

Just go down the list: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, even El Rushbo himself . . . all sound dismayed, irritated and generally hacked off at Senator McCain's commanding performance on Super Tuesday, which must have seemed like Black Tuesday to the dittoheads of the world.

The Rev. Dr. James Dobson, who long ago was anointed pope of the Religious Right by all-knowing talk radio, has washed his hands of this upstart senator, this loose cannon on the good ship Ideological Conformity, who refuses to meekly recite the Reverend Doctor's political rosary.

That's the trouble with John McCain; he's always been his own man. He just will not go along with the party line, anybody's party line. He's always given his interrogators a hard time, refusing to break no matter what blandishments, punishments or calumnies are applied.

Sure, the man may get things done - like finding a way to get conservative judges confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He may even prefer fixing a system that's broken - like our immigration "system" - rather than just griping about it. And if he's proving right about the war in Iraq or on terror in general, well, that scarcely makes up for his unmitigated independence.

Consider the case of Ann Coulter, certified banshee of the American right. (The uncharitable might say certifiable on the basis of her more operatic performances.) The woman doesn't invite conversation so much as diagnosis. With her unfailing instinct for the outrageous, Ms. Coulter is always topping herself, and maybe has to, in order to keep our attention. Which she certainly does. You just have to watch - the way you find yourself slowing down to stare at a car wreck despite your best instincts.

Watching the Coulter Show, I keep thinking of one of those oh-so-mod Shakespearean dramas staged in contemporary costume and placed in the most jarring of settings - say, the executive suite of a modern Romneyesque corporation - in which Lady Macbeth appears as a bottle blonde in correct business attire text-messaging her latest order to Macbeth, Inc. When the curtain comes up, the sight may be a little jarring, but you keep watching - just to see what wretched excess comes next.

Ms. Coulter doesn't even have to raise her voice to be as grating as Chris Matthews, the only political commentator whose spiel rivals those HEAD-ON commercials for sheer volume. (Though his spiel may lack their intellectual content).

Except in Lady Coulter's case, you may not automatically punch the mute button at the sound of her exasperating voice. You've just got to hear what she'll say next. The other day, she conferred her endorsement on Hillary - yes Hillary! in preference to that maverick, that heretic, That Man.

Such has been John McCain's exile to outer darkness by those who hold in their hands, or at least have on their telescreens, the standard list of his deviations from the accepted canons of Rightthink and are checking it twice, thrice and on every re-run.

There's no getting around it: John McCain is just not popular with Conservative Spokesmen. It's only conservatives he appeals to, to judge by the election returns Tuesday. Also independents. Even discerning Democrats. And just plain voters in general. The kind who look to character first, and may even stop looking right there.

All these inescapable voices from stage right bring to mind the kind of true believer who'd rather lose with some ideologically correct robot - assembled according to their exact specifications - than win with a living, breathing, uncontrollable human being. Someone like John McCain. Someone with a mind of his own, and, much more worrisome, a will of his own.

But can John McCain unify the GOP in November? Maybe yes, maybe no. But if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic presidential nomination this year, she'll unite the GOP for him. No wonder so many Republicans are rooting for her in the primaries; she may be their party's best hope - and Barack Obama the GOP's greatest fear.

The attitude of today's Pavlovian Conservatives toward Senator McCain is reminiscent of the disdain that admirers of the late great Robert A. Taft, icon of American conservatism in his time, had for Dwight Eisenhower and his great failing: He was not only too popular (everybody liked Ike) but he was ideologically undependable, maybe even just plain un-ideological, hard as that is for a certain species of political junkie to imagine - about anyone.

Wait a minute, comes the cry from the uniform ranks of Conservative Spokespersons: John McCain is not popular with those voters who identify themselves as Conservative - whether of the moderately, very or wild-eyed variety. And they've got the Exit Polls, today's sacred scrolls, to prove it.

Yes, Virginia, there are still people in this world, or at least political commentators in this world, who have not yet seen through the polls despite their abysmal record in this election and lots of others going back to 1948, or even 1936. The kind of pollsters who splice and dice the American electorate by class, race, age, gender, tax bracket, ethnicity, years of schooling, color of hair and every other which way . . . and then announce how We the neatly categorized People are going to behave in the voting booth. With, of course, a margin of error of plus or minus 3 or 4 percent. (It's that numeroid at the end that gives their findings the perfect note of false authority.)

And when the voters don't confirm to the pollsters' predictions, it's obviously the voters who are mistaken. We've refused to follow orders. Just like John McCain. No wonder so many of us identify with him.

Here's the big problem - well, one of many big problems - with Conservative Spokesmen as opposed to mere conservatives: The anointed see the American voter as some kind of schematic drawing in a poli-sci textbook, a pie chart of instincts, preferences and predetermined choices - rather than that most unpredictable of species, human beings.

But as anybody who's had Biology 101, let alone Comparative Anatomy, might have observed: The actual, living specimen on the table never - never - is an exact replica of the oh-so-neat drawing in the book. It is so much more complicated, detailed, whole - alive.

There's something grotesque about the kind of analysts who think they can reduce real live human beings to just the sum of our parts. They miss the whole. Flannery O'Connor, whose very name brings a smile to memory, was once asked, as a representative Southern Author, another arbitrary category she despised, why Southern writers seem so fascinated by freaks. Because, she said, we in the South can still recognize a freak when we see one. And in order to do that, you have to have some idea of the whole man. And that's just what these oh-so-scientific pollsters, much like the Conservatives-by-the-numbers on the airwaves, seem to lack: an appreciation of the whole, independent, unpredictable, free American.

My louder and more rigid friends in the Great Mediarama out there are victims of the most basic of misperceptions about the nature of conservatism: They've confused right-winger with conservative, and Americans with some kind of herd they can round up, pen up, and speak for. They can no more do so than tell John McCain what to do. No wonder so many of us rather admire the man.

But these professional Conservatives are so provoked with John McCain for disagreeing with them on some issues - I'm not wild about some of his stands, either - that they'd be willing, in effect, to help elect a president from the other party with whom they disagree on almost everything.

Goodness. I like to think of myself as a conservative, too, but I try not to be a damfool.

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