During last night’s first presidential debate, John McCain said a couple of times that he didn’t win the Miss Congeniality contest in the senate. And it’s not hard to see why. He’s got a kind of cranky, belligerent streak in him that was on display last night.

I’ve said it before, discussing McCain’s preferred mantle maverick— the qualities we need most in a president are not evident in John McCain’s personality. He’s prickly and tense, where we need a president who is self-assured. He’s good at lobbing attacks, but not so good at handling criticism, and a president is going to be criticized on a daily basis. We need a president who can handle criticism and still maintain a positive outlook. In the debate last night, he refused to even look at Barack Obama. Several pundit’s picked up on this, and the array of explanations can be summarized as a combination of McCain’s contemptuousness towards and fear of Barack Obama. We need a president who keeps his contempt for others in check, and who is unafraid of his adversaries.

In his proud declaration that he’s un-congenial, McCain demonstrates his lack of understanding about what it takes to be a leader. What we saw last night on stage was a young man who had confidence and the presence to maintain a civil and congenial tone while calling out his older counterpart’s failed judgement. Obama was pointed and specific in his criticism of McCain, but maintained a civil stance and showed a very presidential demeanor. McCain on the other hand was obviously struggling to maintain his composure.

At one point last night, Obama put McCain in an awkward position by bringing up the older senator’s flubbed appearance on a spanish speaking radio program. Obama observed that McCain had suggested he would refuse to take a meeting with the Prime Minister of Spain, a NATO ally. (McCain sounded confused and a little off his game during the radio interview. The interviewer had a thick accent and some thought it was possible that McCain did not understand he was being asked about the Spanish prime minister. Some charitable pundits were willing to give him a pass on the flub, until his campaign spokesman came out the next day and insisted that McCain had understood the questioner, and actually was categorizing Spain as an enemy, not an ally, and that McCain was intentionally throwing down a gauntlet.) While Obama was raising the point in last night’s debate, McCain can be heard angrily muttering something that sounded a lot like “horse shit.”

Clearly, it was a predicament for McCain, since his own campaign put out the talking points that he was not willing to meet with Zapatero. He’d either need to admit in last night’s debate that he’d been confused on the radio show, and that his campaign had cavalierly offended an ally of the United States just to cover up his confusion. Or he’d have to own the remarks and admit that he was setting a new foreign policy towards Spain. Obama called him on the double talk and McCain’s only response was “horse shit.” How presidential is that.

Clearly, the campaign for president is more than a congeniality contest. But the ability to be congenial in the face of adversity is a reflection of a deeper and more important quality — confidence. McCain want’s to be seen as confident, and yet his whole personality screams the lack of that crucial quality. He’s more insecure than confident. Abrasive rather than congenial.

One might argue that choosing Sara Palin was a supreme act of confidence on his part — picking someone as totally and obviously unqualified as she is proving to be might seem to say that he’s not relying on her to bolster his ticket. But in reality, it demonstrates the deep insecurity of John McCain — in choosing Palin, he picked someone who he saw was less qualified than he is to be president. Think about it. The other names on the speculative list of possible VPs might have actually been better choices for the top of the ticket.

Congeniality is a marker for confidence. In the missing congeniality in McCain’s personality we see his lack of confidence. That’s not a president we can believe in.

Posted 27 September 2008 by Mark ·