How far heroism goes

What does an old-time political reporter do when he takes a vacation right in the middle of a hot presidential campaign? He's restless, that's what he is.

While the warm air of Florida is beguiling and he enjoys all that sun, particularly when his Washington friends are digging out of 15 inches of snow, he simply can't stay away from the big political show. He's "keeping up" in any way he can -reading papers, listening to his car radio and watching CNN whenever he is in his room. The sun and the lake combined with news about Bush, Gore, McCain, and Bradley: That's a newsman's vacation heaven.

So it was that each morning I had my own "Monitor breakfast" at the nearby General Store, where I sipped my decaf, read The New York Times (and local papers), and talked to others who were escaping the cold of the North. Sometimes I simply hid behind my paper and listened to the political conversation at the other tables.

I mentioned in my last column that I was taking a book on Theodore Roosevelt with me on vacation, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris. John McCain says Teddy is his hero, his guide in political life. So I renewed my own acquaintance with the country's first Roosevelt president in order to get to know Mr. McCain better.

My father was a great Roosevelt fan. He told me how he heard his idol speak in Chicago in 1896 shortly after Dad had graduated from the University of Illinois. He was among a large number of college graduates in the Chicago Coliseum that afternoon to hear the famous orator.

Dad said he was surprised by Roosevelt's "high, squeaky voice," which, he said, in no way detracted from Teddy's ability to deliver his speech and sway listeners. Dad said Teddy was speaking in favor of GOP presidential candidate William McKinley and against his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan. But that's all he remembered.

Mr. Morris writes, "[Roosevelt] scored his biggest success" [of that political campaign speaking tour] on October 15 in the Chicago Coliseum, where three months before, Bryan had made his famous 'cross of gold' speech. An audience of 13,000 rejoiced as 'Teddy' - the name all but universal now - went about his familiar business of emasculating the opposition."

Yes, Teddy would often do more than just lay out his own case with most effective logic and persuasion: He usually took great glee in cutting up whomever the adversary might be.

McCain, of course, isn't an orator of Roosevelt caliber. Nor does he profess delight in bashing his opponent - even though we can all see he can mix it up with the best of them.

And that brings me back to my "Monitor breakfast" at the General Store in Florida. During my three weeks of holding forth there I don't know how often I heard McCain being mentioned in complimentary ways. And when, on several occasions, I would (I hope not too rudely) break in to the conversation and ask why McCain was being looked upon so favorably, there would be varying words expressed but which all added up to this: "McCain proved his great courage in Vietnam. He's my hero."

So I think it is here that we find the closest resemblance of McCain to Roosevelt - even more than that they were both reformers: The heroic status both attained and was Teddy's biggest political asset. Remember Colonel Roosevelt leading the charge of his regiment up San Juan Heights (that's right, heights, not hill, read the book).

Sure, my findings in Florida were skimpy and anecdotal. But national pollsters have found that McCain's 5-1/2 years of enduring torture in a North Vietnam prison - and when he could have been released earlier because he was an admiral's son - was a heroic performance that is helping him bring voters to his side. My admittedly fragmentary findings have persuaded me that being a hero is not only helping McCain: It is his chief asset by far and the one that has done the most to take him to where he is today when he is still strongly challenging George Bush despite the loss in South Carolina.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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