The Cowardice Issue

October 9, 2008 12:54 p.m.

The image is coming into focus. Even McCain’s confidants are now suggesting that it was his anger and frustration with Obama that led him to embrace Steve Schmidt’s Willie Horton-on-Steroids campaign for the White House. And whether it’s the appearance before the Des Moines Register Editorial board or his tense refusal to make eye contact during the first presidential debate, I don’t think many people would deny at this point that McCain’s hostility and contempt for Obama — what even Wolf Blitzer calls his “disdain” — is palpable.

After the first debate many people wondered aloud whether it was hostility and contempt or fear and intimidation that kept McCain from looking Obama in the face even once. But with two weeks and more evidence to consider, it is clear that it was both: Hostility that is magnified by the person’s mortifying inability to face the person who inspires it. That’s the kind of unchanneled, clogged up anger that makes you unsteady, that makes you make mistakes.

McCain’s moral cowardice has been one of the subtexts of this campaign ever since he wound up the nomination and turned his attention to Barack Obama. But I did not realize it would reveal itself in such a physical dimension.

The tell came this week as McCain unearthed the Ayers story which, for whatever its merits, was fully aired months ago and has no clear relation to the particulars of October other than McCain’s collapsing poll numbers. He’s on it. Palin’s on it. He’s releasing slashing new TV ads like this one. Both of them are ginning their crowds up into spiraling gyres of right-wing delirium — a ready-made Lord of the Flies (and let’s admit that’s a gentle allusion, given the tone of these barnburners) if Obama happened into one of the auditoriums at the wrong moment.

He ever swaggered on for a couple days about how he was going to ‘take the gloves off‘ when he met up with Obama in Nashville. But when the two of them were there in each others physical presence … nothing. By a myriad of gestures and reactions Obama owned him.

Nor is it a matter of shifting off the tactics, because as soon as McCain made his hasty retreat from the stage at Debate #2 he was right back at it. In every other aspect of life, high and low, refined and unlovely, we have a word for that kind of behavior: cowardice.

And now Obama can lightly taunt McCain with that very cowardice, his inability to just say it to his face. And if my take on the inner workings of McCain’s mind at the moment is right that should simply unhinge him even more.

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