I used to nod wisely when people said: "Let's discuss issues rather than personalities." It seemed so obvious that in politics an issue was an issue and a personality was a personality, and that the more one could separate the two, the more serious one was. After all, in a debate on serious issues, any mention of the opponent's personality would be ad hominem at best and at worst would stoop as low as ad feminam.
At my old English boarding school, we had a sporting saying that one should "tackle the ball and not the man." I carried on echoing this sort of unexamined nonsense for quite some time—in fact, until the New Hampshire primary of 1992, when it hit me very forcibly that the "personality" of one of the candidates was itself an "issue."
In later years, I had little cause to revise my view that Bill Clinton's abysmal character was such as to be a "game changer" in itself, at least as important as his claim to be a "new Democrat." To summarize what little I learned from all this: A candidate may well change his or her position on, say, universal health care or Bosnia. But he or she cannot change the fact—if it happens to be a fact—that he or she is a pathological liar, or a dimwit, or a proud ignoramus. And even in the short run, this must and will tell.
On "the issues" in these closing weeks, there really isn't a very sharp or highly noticeable distinction to be made between the two nominees, and their "debates" have been cramped and boring affairs as a result. But the difference in character and temperament has become plainer by the day, and there is no decent way of avoiding the fact.
Last week's so-called town-hall event showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical. And the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience.
McCain occasionally remembers to stress matters like honor and to disown innuendoes and slanders, but this only makes him look both more senile and more cynical, since it cannot (can it?) be other than his wish and design that he has engaged a deputy who does the innuendoes and slanders for him.
I suppose it could be said, as Michael Gerson has alleged, that the Obama campaign's choice of the word erratic to describe McCain is also an insinuation. But really, it's only a euphemism. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear had to feel sorry for the old lion on his last outing and wish that he could be taken somewhere soothing and restful before the night was out.
The train-wreck sentences, the whistlings in the pipes, the alarming and bewildered handhold phrases—"My friends"—to get him through the next 10 seconds. I haven't felt such pity for anyone since the late Adm. James Stockdale humiliated himself as Ross Perot's running mate. And I am sorry to have to say it, but Stockdale had also distinguished himself in America's most disastrous and shameful war, and it didn't qualify him then and it doesn't qualify McCain now.
The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: "What does he take me for?" Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace.
It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party's right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama's position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.
It therefore seems to me that the Republican Party has invited not just defeat but discredit this year, and that both its nominees for the highest offices in the land should be decisively repudiated, along with any senators, congressmen, and governors who endorse them.
I used to call myself a single-issue voter on the essential question of defending civilization against its terrorist enemies and their totalitarian protectors, and on that "issue" I hope I can continue to expose and oppose any ambiguity. Obama is greatly overrated in my opinion, but the Obama-Biden ticket is not a capitulationist one, even if it does accept the support of the surrender faction, and it does show some signs of being able and willing to profit from experience.
With McCain, the "experience" is subject to sharply diminishing returns, as is the rest of him, and with Palin the very word itself is a sick joke. One only wishes that the election could be over now and a proper and dignified verdict rendered, so as to spare democracy and civility the degradation to which they look like being subjected in the remaining days of a low, dishonest campaign.
Posted Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, at 10:44 AM ET