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McCain & the Missiles of October

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Had John S. McCain been sitting where John F. Kennedy sat in 1962, would he have played that heroic role in preventing catastrophe by resisting the "Bomb 'em now and worry about the consequences later" chorus? Would McCain do so under similar circumstances in the coming four years? All the evidence, including his own testimony on how he makes decisions, indicates that he would instead be leading that chorus.

"I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," McCain wrote of decisions in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

McCain is willing to live with the consequences of his hasty mistaken decisions. Are the rest of us?

The Republican nominee's impulsive, shoot-from-the-hip method of making decisions has been on display during the current campaign. Selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate after meeting her twice and without having had her vetted to any significant extent is a prime example of the McCain act-quickly-and-decisively; don't-think-about-it-much approach.

His impulsiveness has been evident in both his lurching back and forth on the condition of the economy (in a few days from "The fundamentals of our economy are strong" to "We are in the most serious crisis since World War II") and his proposals for what to do about it.

In August, at Pastor Rick Warren's religion forum, Sen. McCain was asked a question about how we should respond to evil. Without a moment's hesitation or thought, he responded: "Defeat it!"

Many viewer-voters, quite understandably, preferred such decisiveness to Barack Obama's thoughtful, nuanced answers.

Being decisive can be a good quality--up to a point. McCain, like the man he seeks to succeed and the woman he chose to be in a position to succeed him, suffers from what David Brooks has termed "brashness and excessive decisiveness."

John McCain is trigger happy; Sarah Palin is trigger ecstatic.

McCain loves to gamble. He especially loves shooting craps. A recent New York Times article recounted one night in 2000 when McCain "tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table" for hours. The piece accurately described him as "a lifelong gambler" who "takes risks, both on and off the craps table." Do Americans really want a commander in chief who likes to roll the dice with our future, even our very survival, as the stakes?

Last month George Will wrote of McCain's "impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events," his "impatience," his apparent lack of aptitude to engage in "calm reflection, and his "dismaying temperament." McCain, Will said, has quarrels rather than qualms.

Should John McCain be elected, we'll have more to fear than fear itself.

The horrible economy notwithstanding, the biggest issue of this election in the long run may be whether we will have a long run. This issue can summarized as: It's the judgment and temperament of the man with his finger on the button, stupid!

Promos for the 1973 film American Graffiti asked, "Where were you in '62?" There is strong reason to believe that it is a good thing for the world that John McCain's answer would not be, "in the White House."


{Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown). He is currently at work on a book on America in the 1960s, Oh, Freedom! (Norton).}

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Robert S. McElvaine is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of ten books. He is a frequent contributor to the op ed pages of the major national newspapers and blogs for the Huffington Post. His latest book is "Grand Theft (more...)
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