MAXWELL: McCain vs. the merchants of fear 

3/21/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

“A kind of madness” is how a friend of mine, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, described the courage displayed by men whose battlefield heroics had earned them the Medal of Honor. “It’s impossible to comprehend, really, even if you witness it. … It’s one mad moment. You never think anyone you know is really capable of it. Not even the toughest, bravest, best men in the company. They’re as surprised as anyone to see it. If anyone does it and lives, they probably never do it again.”

Thus begins Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life, a new book by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. The senator’s third book, Why Courage Matters comes at the right time. Besides running for a fourth Senate term, McCain is featured in the March issue of Men’s Journal as No. 5 on the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 25 toughest dudes.

And you had better believe that the 67-year-old McCain, a maverick in his conservative party, is one tough guy. The former Navy pilot survived nearly six brutal years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and he has not stopped flexing his muscles since.

Why Courage Matters is McCain’s attempt to inspire his fellow Americans to be brave in their daily lives in the aftermath of 9/11. Who knows better how to be brave than people who have faced adversity, even death, and have triumphed? To this end, McCain shares his favorite stories of other people’s bravery and fortitude. Some of the stories are about historic events, while others depict exemplary behavior in commonplace settings.

McCain’s major thesis is that all Americans are capable of courage, and now is the time to rediscover and nurture it. Following the World Trade Center attacks, McCain argues, many Americans are scared and have drastically altered their everyday lives. Many, for example, irrationally avoid venues where large crowds gather. Others stay away from tall buildings, while still others refuse to fly.

In his unadorned style, McCain writes: “They’re wrong. . . . Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave!

“Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape?

“That’s not a life worth living, is it?”

When I received a galley of the manuscript, I nearly tossed it in the trash. I had no desire to read what I thought would be another right-wing screed. I am glad I read Why Courage Matters because McCain’s blunt talk and raw honesty provide a dose of reality for the nation at this critical time.

We are mired in a swamp of fear, paranoia and lies created and sustained by the fearsome rhetoric of self-serving politicians. Many of these same people have never faced serious personal danger of any kind, let alone having fought in combat or even having been near a war zone.

“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears,” McCain writes.

Obviously, the overwhelming majority of ordinary civilians will never find themselves tested by the physical dangers of military combat. How, then, do they live courageously? McCain wants Americans to recognize and affirm their own sense of honor and dignity, to develop a strong sense of moral outrage for injustice and mendacity, to have the courage to speak unpopular truths when necessary.

“Build your courage,” McCain writes. “Revive your reverence for values of a free society and the virtues of decent people. We have something worth being brave for: liberty and justice.”

These sentiments thrive in an environment of truthfulness.

As I wrote this column, McCain was demonstrating the courage of his convictions by speaking his mind, by voicing what he considers to be an unpopular truth that will further alienate him from GOP loyalists. When asked on CBS and NBC talk shows if Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is weak on defense, as President Bush’s campaign ads and Vice President Dick Cheney argue, McCain said: “No, I do not believe that he is, quote, weak on defense.”

Following his own advice, McCain refused to miscast Kerry, who is a decorated Vietnam veteran and a combat-tested patriot. In my humble opinion, President Bush and Vice President Cheney, along with other merchants of fear in this administration, need to read Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life.