John McCain’s claim today is that, because he has already been “tested”, no foreign power would dare risk creating an international crisis with the United States if he is president. McCain thinks he has been tested for two reasons: First, because he survived 5 years of torture and captivity and, second, because he sat in a jet cockpit on an aircraft carrier during the Missile Crisis, awaiting orders to bomb Cuba.
What McCain doesn’t realize when he tells the aircraft carrier story is that it was a calm, highly intelligent, relatively inexperienced young president who played a key role in preventing that crisis from escalating into a world-wide catastrophe. If John McCain had been president in September of 1962, it is doubtful that the outcome would have been the same.
As for McCain’s years as a POW, certainly that experience tested his ability to survive and overcome great personal adversity. But that is hardly the kind of testing that is relevant for a leader who has to remain cool, make thoughtful decisions on complex issues, and manage the people who carry them out. Being emotionally tough and resilient are good qualities, but they are not pre-requisites for an effective president.
Barack Obama has been tested all his life, but in different ways that make him better suited to be president. His intellect, communication skills and ability to master complex problems were constantly tested, and the results of that testing are self-evident. But the real question here is which candidate would be the most likely to make an impulsive decision if such a crisis were to unfold?
Considering John McCain’s temperament and pugnacious attitude, I suspect that he would be more easily baited. He has said himself that one his heroes is Teddy Roosevelt, the president who charged up San Juan Hill. Like Roosevelt, John McCain sees himself as a warrior first and statesman second. He’s been fighting all his life, trying to live up to the legacy of his father and grandfather, who were both Admirals. The problem is, John McCain never commanded a company, a platoon, or a squad. He was a “maverick” fighter pilot, and a mediocre one at that. As a senator, he has never played an executive role, a point which his own running-mate recently expressed.
So, the question remains, where has John McCain been tested, and how did he perform on this alleged test? Being president is not a contest of wills or a physical challenge. It’s not about being the one who is most willing to charge up the hill, in order to win that elusive “victory”. The job is considerably more complicated than that.