John McCain loves For Whom the Bell Tolls. He talks about Ernest Hemingway's Spanish Civil War novel and its hero Robert Jordan with a passionate adoration he's never even displayed for his own wife. "My number-one hero of all time!" McCain said on the campaign trail in 2007. "I am an incurable idealist and romantic. Robert Jordan is everything I ever wanted to be."
According to a recent New York Times story, McCain tried to be Robert Jordan, imposing the narrative of Tolls onto his own autobiography, leading to fights with his cowriter Mark Salter. "You know he is a fictional character?" Salter said he asked McCain, who replied, "I know, but he was influential!"
Jordan is especially influential for McCain, a man who models real-life actions on fictional events. Viva Zapata!, McCain's favorite film, closes with a stirring scene wherein villagers dress like Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata to show solidarity. The scene, which was written by John Steinbeck, is clearly an inspiration for one of McCain's latest ads, wherein a rainbow coalition of men and women stare into the camera and proudly announce, one after the other, "I am Joe the Plumber."
What can we learn about McCain by reading For Whom the Bell Tolls? We almost immediately learn there is one thing that even tough-as-nails military man and demolitions expert Robert Jordan (and his name—simple and repetitive, like the pounding of a war drum: RAW-bert JOR-dan—is nearly almost always said in full by both Hemingway and the characters in the novel), and every other decent man, fears. A gypsy named Pablo talks about a mutual friend named Kashkin with Jordan:
"He was captured and he killed himself."
"How did that happen?"
"He was wounded and he did not wish to be a prisoner."
"What were the details?"
"I don't know," he lied. He knew the details very well and he knew they would not make good talking now.
"He made us promise to shoot him in case he were wounded at the business of the train and should be unable to get away," Pablo said. "He spoke in a very rare manner."
He must have been jumpy even then, Robert Jordan thought. Poor old Kashkin.
"He had a prejudice against killing himself," Pablo said. "He told me that. Also he had a great fear of being tortured."
This early discussion sets up much of Jordan's struggle for the rest of the book and leads directly to the climactic scene where he has to decide between death or capture. It must mean much to McCain that even his perfect idea of a soldier fears, and ultimately confronts, torture and suicide, which are two crucibles McCain has faced and survived. In his own mind, McCain's life is most probably the continuation of Robert Jordan's life, an ongoing and unlicensed sequel to what many consider Hemingway's greatest novel.
Recently, on Jeffrey Goldberg's blog for the Atlantic, Salter claimed, "I never even read For Whom the Bell Tolls... I didn't pattern McCain's life on For Whom the Bell Tolls. [The NYT article] pissed me off. It's McCain's fucking story." In a May interview with Goldberg on Jewish-American issues, McCain talked about other books he admires, contradicting his own, oft-recorded preference for Hemingway: "War and Remembrance and Winds of War are my two absolute favorite books... War and Remembrance for me, it's the whole thing." Goldberg asks, "Not a big Philip Roth fan?" And McCain curtly responds, "No, I'm not. Leon Uris I enjoyed."
Despite being over two thousand pages, Herman Wouk's War books are remarkable only in that they are completely unremarkable. They certainly don't function well as narratives—it's impossible to picture the characters as anything more than cardboard cutouts on Popsicle sticks, bobbing around a chintzy stage for the entertainment of the simple-minded. A reader interested in World War II has a flood of excellent histories to choose from; only the most desperate war wonks or die-hard soap-opera aficionados would find something of value here.
But there's one particularly relevant Leon Uris book: his twelfth novel, titled A God in Ruins. Published in 1999, just as McCain's presidential ambitions were made public for the first time, Ruins tells the story of a presidential race in 2008. The hero is Quinn Patrick O'Connell, an ex-military man from Colorado who is running for president but has discovered a shameful secret: He is actually Jewish. Like all speculative fiction that's reached the date it imagines, the idea of a candidate's Jewishness being a problem is almost laughable now, but even without the central engine of the plot to concern us, there's still much to learn.
Certainly Uris's writing—"She smiled, and her eyes were big brown muffins"—can't compare to Hemingway's lean introspection. But superficially, many of the elements are the same: The men are manly and a woman's character is judged by the size of her breasts. Uris writes of Dan, Quinn's father: "It took time for Daniel Timothy O'Connell to transform from Brooklyn cop to rugged Coloradan. All of about a week. His attitude was a force, a force that wakened him every morning, led him to his knees to thank God for bringing them to this place." And he falls in love with Quinn's mother the old-fashioned way: "Siobhan pulled off her blouse and unhooked her bra. 'Kiss them, Dan.'"
But Dan talks to his priest about a problem he can't seem to overcome, the kind of problem McCain's fictional men always have:
"No doubts, Sean. I love Siobhan fiercely."
"Almost as much as you love the Marine Corps," the priest retorted.
"It's so damned hard to let go!" Dan cried.
"I'm counseling veterans a good part of the day. Lots of lads are stumbling around. It was for most of you the first taste of life beyond Brooklyn, and no matter what happens, the war will always remain the big event of your life."
Unfortunately, by the time 2008 actually, finally came to pass, John McCain stopped resembling the rugged men who populate the work of Hemingway, of Wouk, of Uris. Instead, he resembles more closely the campaign advisers of A God in Ruins' morally questionable incumbent, President Thornton Tomtree, here discussing their scorched-earth negative campaign against Quinn O'Connell:
"I said, do you know what we've got here?"
"A shithole, and we've just poured six hundred thousand dollars down it. Your stupid campaign is only making people flock to him."
"This stupid campaign has worked time and time again," King argued.
"Can't you even understand a man who can't be intimidated!"
"You go with what works," he answered reactively.
It's appropriate that, with the exception of the Goldberg interview, McCain has only publicly talked about the beginning of his reading life. Behind one of the most classic tough guys in 20th-century literature is a string of caricatures. What shame to have transformed in four decades from the flawed but admirable hero of a classic novel to the mud-slinging villain of a poorly written drugstore potboiler.