During the last days before the Michigan primary, I stood next to Shane Farlin as he tentatively shuffled up the rope line at a John McCain rally in Battle Creek.
The U.S. Army specialist had lost his right eye in Iraq; his artificial iris was a glimmering American flag. I watched McCain's brown eyes lock on the 22-year-old's, seeming wholly unaware of the hordes waving signs and cameras all around him.
The former POW thanked Farlin for his service twice and listened to his problems with Veterans Affairs for several minutes. He gave him a top aide's cell phone number. I felt my breath catch at the intense exchange, where so much was left unsaid.
Farlin was clearly awestruck afterward, pledging to vote for McCain "without a doubt." I couldn't help but feel the same, especially after covering the focus-grouped affairs of Mr. Plastic, Mitt Romney, and the televangelist-smooth tent revivals of Mike Huckabee.
That was McCain at his best - refreshingly dignified and empathetic. He proved himself the embodiment of service to this country, a notion that has become disturbingly quaint in modern times.
Lately, however, we've been seeing McCain at his worst. When it comes to Barack Obama, he's petulant and personal, seemingly unable to come to grips that he's battling a cool wunderkind 25 years his junior who only recently set foot in the Senate. The same frustration is evident in hiss ever-loyal, bickering staff, starting with his surrogate son and speech writer, Mark Salter.
In a flash of that trademark candor, Johnny Mac would probably volunteer that his raccoon-eyed, unemployed blogger daughter, Meghan, meets the commander-in-chief test better than his rival.
That bitterness, which infected Hillary Clinton (and we all know how well that turned out) won't help him any with voters. Once a candidate seems to lose his mirth and perspective (Al Gore), it's a turn-off, often a fatal one.
Because as much as Americans claim to vote on the issues, personality often trumps all.
There's the non-stop drumbeat questioning Obama's patriotism (and the defensive, disingenuous denials) that's become the stomach-churning hallmark of McCain's campaign for the last few months. The goal is to make this election a referendum on Obama, not President Bush, because the Republicans can read the polls.
The attack machine is sharpest with surrogates like Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent who seems gripped by a somewhat understandable cathartic need to stick it to the party that all but abandoned him in 2006.
This race is "between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put his country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate that has not," Joltin' Joe declared recently.
Sheesh. Hard to remember Lieberman actually encouraged that ungrateful, unqualified kid to run.
Obama rightly fired back in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week:
"But one of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same."
But McCain wasn't about to back down, sniffing that Obama was getting "a little testy on this issue. ... Let me be clear: I am not questioning his patriotism; I am questioning his judgment." Then the Republican launched into his deceitful spiel that Obama doesn't want to win the war in Iraq.
The assault ratchets up in the blogosphere and right-wing media, of course, where reasoned intellectuals like Michael Savage gently raise if Obama is a terrorist. Oh, and he's black, if you haven't noticed. You know, like gang-bangers and Kwame Kilpatrick. Just sayin'.
McCain has done precious little to denounce any of this, shrugging, "You gotta have a sense of humor" about the latest smear book on Obama by white supremacist sympathizer Jerome Corsi. In July, McCain shelled out $19 million in mostly negative ads (only $7 million less than he raised) and he is indeed closing the gap in polling.
But at what price? Has he resigned himself to run a campaign that falls far short of the honor and statesmanship he professes just to win? Sorry, John, that ain't putting your country first. I'd say that's conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.
The erudite David Brooks paints McCain as a victim of circumstance, having little choice amid the media hoopla around the Chosen One. My dear Republican friends tell me Obama's a thin-skinned lightweight who's not up to the job. In other words, the ends justify the means.
That's all well and good, only they didn't feel that way in South Carolina in 2000 when Bush ran a vicious whisper campaign about McCain's black baby (his adopted Bangladeshi daughter) that effectively knocked him out.
Now John McCain proudly says he'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war. It's time to prove it by running a race befitting of his character.