What worries me about the prospect of John McCain as president is that McCain intends to put “country first,” no matter what.

As we all know, John McCain is an American war hero. In fact, he’s not just a hero, but someone who faced evil in that cell in Hanoi and overcame it with sheer will, thus giving us one of the most compelling personal narratives in American political history. But it is precisely his past heroism that renders John McCain the wrong person for the Oval Office, because the inconvenient thing about heroes is that the moral outlooks they hold just don’t fit into the complexity of ordinary life.

cCain the Maverick barely even fit in when accepting his party’s nomination at a convention that may as well have taken place on Mars (personal highlight: Mitt Romney’s rant on “liberal Washington”). In his speech, McCain gushed about his running mate, Sarah Palin. Why? New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks puts it best: “The Palin pick allows John McCain to run the way he wants to . as the crusader for virtue against the forces of selfishness.”

cCain certainly drove that point all the way home: “I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party. We were elected to change Washington and Washington changed us.”

But that’s exactly McCain’s problem; this country doesn’t need a hero. Poll after poll shows Americans want the government to confront problems like rising income inequality or inadequate healthcare – problems that McCain’s worldview completely fails to register.

Perhaps the most revealing glimpse into McCain’s moral outlook occurred several weeks ago at Rick Warren’s “values forum” at his Saddleback Church in California. There, the pastor subjected both Obama and McCain to lengthy interrogations on their respective positions on moral issues.

Warren asked both candidates whether evil exists and, if so, what we should do about it. Obama’s answer: “Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil sadly on the streets of our cities. We evil see in parents who have viciously abused their children.”

And what did John McCain say about evil? He said he will “defeat it.” That he’ll chase down Osama bin Laden to “the gates of hell.” That he’s going to take on “the transcendental challenge of the 21st century – radical Islamic terrorism.”

What’s striking about McCain’s grandiose view is that he sees evil as something “out there,” a hydra whose head must be cut off. I finally realized while watching the Republican National Convention that America to McCain and his party is an abstraction, a fundamentally decent place powered by “small town values,” where, if you work hard, you will acquire the American Dream. The idea that the United States has deep-rooted injustices that hardworking people can’t solve themselves just seems unimaginable.

Ironically, perhaps it’s Barack Obama’s community organizing in Chicago – so cheerily mocked by Palin – that’s the most appropriate experience for any future reformer-in-chief. Anyone who’s worked on anti-poverty programs can at least appreciate how deeply injustice becomes enrooted in our everyday social structures.

Then again, John McCain is a product of America, and America is not a place of nuance. In a way, we’re lucky; our society has never had to experience the horrors of the last century: no Dresden, no Auschwitz, no Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And when it was inconvenient to remember our contributions, we let memory lapse.

The historian Tony Judt has written brilliantly about our “forgotten 20th century,” noting, for instance: “As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today.”

So we’ve become conditioned to think that we’re always on the right side of history. In stark contrast, when you speak to a German about his country, you sense the Holocaust engraved on his reticence on the subject.

But as a result, Americans have yet to understand how societies can unwittingly sanction and overlook evil in the name of great causes. That’s the lesson imprinted on German national consciousness, and it’s the lesson we only now seem to be relearning from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Interestingly, neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney used the word “torture” in their endorsements to describe what happened to McCain in Vietnam. How ironic that they’ve sanctioned the same techniques against our enemies in our global struggle against terror!

That’s what happens when you see the world in black and white; when you lose sight of the fact that our choices, no matter how well-intentioned, are subject to contingency, that often whether we do good or its opposite depends on mere chance.

That’s also why a hero wrought by a moment of clarity in a prison cell is the wrong man for the presidency. His tortured worldview simply leaves no room for uncertainty in uncertain times.

Thus, this election isn’t about voting for country or against it. It’s about voting for or against a chimera.

Lukasz Swiderski is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and is studying abroad at Oxford University in England. He can be reached at swiderskithehoya.com. UNFOREIGN AFFAIRS appears every other Tuesday.

Political Bias on the Viewpoint Page? For more on this issue, visit The Hoya’s blog, Leavey 421 – Inside the Newsroom.

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