Back during the 2000 Republican primary campaign I attended a John McCain speech. This was not an off-the-cuff town hall style campaign talk. It was a podium-with-teleprompter speech of approximately 25 minutes with questions afterwards. At that time I was already pretty certain I wouldn't vote for John McCain in the 2000 California primary, but I thought I'd give him a listen and my oldest son wanted to attend every Republican campaign appearance possible, so there we were at the Reagan Library listening (and my son later speaking with Senator McCain one-on-one) to his prepared speech. There was something that really bothered me about his emphasis on "serving a cause greater than your own self interest"-- in fact, at the end of his speech he said that if we only remembered one thing from his talk it should be that everyone in America should "serve a cause greater than your own self-interest." To this day he hammers on this theme. His opponent does as well.
There is something very troubling to me about a politician who finds any form of public service a "higher calling" than going to work every day in the private sector. It was especially troubling coming from a Republican. Don't get me wrong, I think going into public service can be honorable. I'm not disrespecting public service-- I'm pointing out that it is not inherently more deserving of respect than work in the private sector. Senator Obama touts in a TV ad that he gave up lucrative offers as he came out of law school so he could be a poorly paid (leftist) community organizer in the poorest parts of Chicago. The implication is that he is a "noble fellow with a higher calling" for making this huge personal sacrifice. Of course, my response to that ad is, "that was your mistake, pal, don't blame me for your delusions." But, McCain's core message, still repeated today, is that "service to a cause greater than one's own self-interest" is the highest calling. So, by that standard, young Barack Obama certainly did the right thing.
Frankly, every time I start to think I could actually buy a big enough clothespin to put on my nose and vote for McCain something happens and I remember how much he believes in things I reject. An all-powerful state is at the core of those things I reject. I think about how dismissive he is of people who have been successful in the private sector and think, "there's just no way." Clearly, we are looking at the worst choice between two candidates for President since 1976 this November. Both parties had clean slates to draw on and we ended up with this. It's just sad.
This morning I read a great piece from Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard that gets to this "service to the big cause" issue in his typical, clever fashion. It includes this section:
Whoever wins the White House, the heart sinks to imagine the rhetorical tone of the next administration, thanks to John McCain's regret over his years as a rebellious midshipman and Barack Obama's vanity over the years he spent berating slumlords on the South Side of Chicago. For four long years the rest of us will be hectored about pursuing a cause greater than our self-interest, with the unavoidable implication that as we go through the day getting our kids out of bed, packing their lunches, helping them with homework, dragging ourselves to our jobs, enduring an hour's commute, so we can make enough money to meet our mortgage, attending PTA meetings, feeding the dog, going to church, mowing our neighbor's lawn while he's on vacation, planning a birthday party, saying a prayer for a sick friend, picking up a six-pack for our brother-in-law on the way home, writing a check to the Red Cross, shopping for an old roommate's wedding gift, pretending to listen to the tedious beefs of a co-worker, telephoning an aging aunt, and otherwise doing what it is we need to do to make our lives mean something, we are merely pursuing what our two presidential candidates consider our selfish interest. Because we haven't joined one of their national service programs.
For now, of course, each of the two men, McCain and Obama, points to himself as an exemplar of service--even as he avoids his family, neglects his job, and hands his everyday obligations over to poorly paid subordinates, all so he can fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming the most powerful and celebrated man in the world. What do you know: They think their self-interest is a cause greater than their self-interest. Funny how that happens.
Andrew Ferguson asks, "Is self-interest bad?"