The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

When all you have is the cover

THEY'RE at it again. The PC Police are nailing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the wall, blasting him for an innocuous comment. They couldn't be more wrong. Last week on the New Hampshire campaign trail, the Republican presidential candidate exhibited poor judgment by telling a Washington Post reporter that, while in the Navy, he could tell if some people were gay "by attitudes and behavior."

I use the phrase "poor judgment" because McCain should know that in today's political climate, a candidate can't say such things. That was evidenced by the rapid media backlash against the comment, as well as McCain's own speedy backpedaling on NBC's "Today Show" with Katie Couric.

While McCain's remark might seem out of line, the behavior he spoke of wasn't. Never mind that in the same Post article that featured McCain's quote, the Log Cabin Republicans, a group representing 11,000 gays, defended the senator. The issue isn't the quote's press play: It's about the limits political correctness places on normal behavior.

Making surface appraisals based on attitudes and behavior is how we function in the world. It's how salesmen make sales. It's how lawyers pitch to juries. And it's how military officers effectively lead men in combat.

We take a person's actions and words, and use them to form flexible conclusions. How often do we conclude that someone is a conservative or a liberal, based on what they say in a single conversation? We'd be foolish to hold fast to that initial appraisal, but it likely will inform our future interactions with that person. We steer clear of some topics or refrain from sounding off with our own opposing views. We make educated guesses about people in order to get along. If we don't, we're not trying very hard.

Leadership demands working with people on an individual level, and what McCain did is what leaders do: He took stock of the men he worked with. He noted their traits and used his judgment to intuit what they were like. It would have been nice if McCain had taken the time to get to know each man before making guesses about his personality, but combat - just like politics and most other essential, difficult jobs - doesn't exactly provide time for getting-to-know-you sessions.

The critics who are up in arms over McCain's comment are missing - or misinterpreting - a crucial part of the quote. McCain claimed that he could spot some homosexuals, but insisted that "I didn't pursue it, I wouldn't pursue it and I wouldn't pursue it today." He admitted making superficial judgments, but then explained that he didn't act upon those judgments. McCain's job was to command men in combat, and since private matters like sexual preference have nothing to do with combat, he let it go. He read people and threw out the chapters that didn't relate to his job.

Leaders must make superficial judgments about the people they lead, but they take into account only the characteristics that pertain to the task at hand. Good leaders exercise good judgment. Good judgment dictates that attributes such as sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity have no bearing on a person's ability to perform a given task. McCain summed up the men he served with, taking into account the things that mattered and disregarding the things he saw - or thought he saw - that didn't matter.

The consensus opinion spinning from the PC Police is that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, that we shouldn't take individual characteristics into account. That's bunk. In challenging leadership positions, all leaders often have to go on is the cover. They don't have the time or resources to read the whole book. So they have to become good at reading the cover. That's not the fault of any one individual; it's the fault of our world being large and moving quickly.

If we insist that McCain should not have noted individual characteristics, we're also insisting that he shouldn't have looked for signs of cowardice, mental disorder, alcoholism, etc. There aren't any foolproof ways to discern such personality traits. But if a commander ignores potentially destructive traits, acting only when they become manifest, it doesn't make him an enlightened, politically correct practitioner of tolerance. It makes him a walking liability.

As it was in the Navy, so it is in politics. Political leaders are selected primarily for their ability to make sound decisions based on limited information. If McCain is going to be an effective president, he'll need an effective staff. He must eliminate problems before they become visible, which means he'll have to make educated guesses based on clues and his own judgment. If he's going to survive in the policy arena, he must read his opponents and allies, and then act on his instinct. He won't have time to acquaint himself intimately with each issue. Before all that, he has to get elected, which means he'll have to tailor his campaign to specific groups. He won't have time to get to know each voter. Instead he'll make sound guesses based on traits such as geographic location, race, gender and social status. That's not intolerance - it's politics, the art of the possible.

McCain is an effective leader and has served as a responsible, moderate senator. His campaign shouldn't be ruined by overzealous PC Police with a limited view of reality.

(Tom Bednar is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)


Latest Podcast

Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.