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John McCain

Let me be blunt, please: Most of us ink-stained wretches in the political press corps are complete suckers for candor from politicians when speaking about themselves. Candor can truly be disarming.

Early in the first Reagan term, on Aug. 19, 1981, in a major incident, two Libyan fighter jets attacked two U.S. Navy F-14 fighter jets over the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea. Understanding orders to fire if fired upon, the Navy pilots — in a dogfight lasting just one minute — shot both Libyan jets down. His White House staff chose not to wake President Ronald Reagan, who was sleeping in California and was not informed until some six hours later, when he awakened.

This report led to renewed questions about the president's age and possible disengagement from his own administration and his duties as commander in chief. Reagan, who, frankly, did occasionally nod off at less than scintillating briefings, silenced most critics with this rejoinder: "I have left orders to be awakened at any time during national emergency ... even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting."

Equally appealing to the cynics on the press bus was presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who, when asked why he had shifted during the South Carolina primary from calling the Confederate flag "a symbol of racism and slavery" to instead maintaining he "understood both sides," publicly confessed his regrets: "I had not just been dishonest." He subsequently admitted: "I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interest from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable."

Confession is not only good for the soul but also good for favorable press coverage, which McCain would prove during his presidential campaign when asked what he saw as his own imperfections and defects. Believe me, this is a question which ordinarily elicits from candidates the most self-serving verbal oatmeal, such gems as, "I admit I'm a perfectionist" or, "I sometimes work too hard at the job and shortchange my personal responsibilities."

McCain admitted and accepted full responsibility for the failure, after his five-and-a-half-years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, of his first marriage and added that he had been a lousy student, finishing fifth from last in his graduating class at the United States Naval Academy and admitting that, yes, he did have a quick and bad temper. Americans are mostly grown-ups who know that none of us, most especially those pursuing the presidency, is without sin and serious flaws.

When Republicans controlled the U.S. House, the Senate and the White House, just four short years ago, and were predicting a quick and easy "repeal and replace " of President Barack Obama's signature Affordable Care Act, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner gave the press and the public, to say nothing of his fellow GOPers, a dose of candor: "In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time, agreed on what a health care proposal should look like. Not once." That was true then and is still true today.

Just maybe Walt Whitman knew something about the weaknesses of those with a press pass when he wrote: "All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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