McCain fails himself

John McCain’s account of his most famous lie — embracing the Confederate flag after rejecting it in hopes of winning the South Carolina primary in 2000 — is wrenching, poignant and pure. In the years that followed his failed ploy, McCain proffered generous and unadulterated contrition.

The lie, he said, was unforgivable. He had been a coward, and brought great shame upon himself that he could ill afford. “It’s a little late in life to bear that kind of burden,” McCain wrote.

Lying, it seems, did a real number on the Straight Talker.

McCain concedes he gave in to pressure and lied for victory. He referred to his change of heart on the flag as a “hostage statement,” which he hoped the reporters surrounding him would understand he was forced to read. “I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a little corner here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president,” he later wrote.

Not only did McCain hate his own lies, he and his family suffered immeasurable pain in that same campaign when George W. Bush supporters spread vicious rumors about him having an illegitimate daughter. Those lies won Bush the South Carolina primary and McCain has always held the Bush team personally responsible for it, even throughout the rapprochement with Bush that McCain later welcomed in order to have another turn at winning the presidency.

Now with the White House in his sights, McCain has decided to exit the high road he journeyed on for months of the general election because he didn’t think it got him enough attention. Last week his campaign made several ads attacking Barack Obama using two lies: that Obama had called Sarah Palin a pig, and that the “only thing” Obama had done on education was to push for sex education for kindergartners. Neutral fact-checkers were joined by Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove and key Republicans in a stampede of criticism. But when asked about the ads McCain chose to wave the Confederate flag — he said the ads were true. Honesty held hostage once again.

When the campaign first ran ads comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, longtime friend and former adviser John Weaver was critical, reminding us that McCain’s strength is his “bigness.” Yet last week Weaver joined other advisers in acknowledging that each day spent on the distraction of attacks, true or untrue, instead of the issues, is a winning day for McCain. Winning at any price is now the stated goal of the McCain campaign.

In 2000, aides prepared a stinging attack against Bush that McCain dismissed and never used. This winter when Mitt Romney was outspending him 10-to-1 and attacking with ferocity, McCain defended himself but never hit below the belt. Now we see a new McCain, whose bigness has been replaced by a stomach for lies and smears. The blows too low for Bush and Romney are ones McCain now lands on Obama. And the truth he built his career on telling has become a campaign casualty.

Victory may not elude McCain this time, no matter his tactics. And if he becomes president, he is certain to suffer his proverbial remorse, regret and self-rebuke, only this time no one will be listening to all that talk about how the worst decisions he has made have been those made to seek an advantage for himself. I have defended McCain for years because of his courage to do the difficult, unpopular thing and withstand the heat and cold shoulders that nearly always follow. I am glad he wanted to win a war more than he wanted to win an election. But now we know something equally important about McCain — he wants to win an election more than the war within himself.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.