Following his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 South Carolina primary, John McCain did something extraordinary: He confessed to lying about how he felt about the Confederate battle flag, which he actually abhorred. "I broke my promise to always tell the truth," McCain said. Now he has broken that promise so completely that the John McCain of old is unrecognizable. He has become the sort of politician he once despised.
The precise moment of McCain's abasement came, would you believe, not at some news conference or on one of the Sunday shows but on "The View," the daytime TV show created by Barbara Walters. Last week, one of the co-hosts, Joy Behar, took McCain to task for some of the ads his campaign has been running. One deliberately mischaracterized what Barack Obama had said about putting lipstick on a pig -- an Americanism that McCain himself has used. The other asserted that Obama supported teaching sex education to kindergarteners.
"We know that those two ads are untrue," Behar said. "They are lies."
Freeze. Close in on McCain. This was the moment. He has largely been avoiding the press. The Straight Talk Express is now just a brand, an ad slogan like "Home Cooking" or "We Will Not Be Undersold." Until then, it was possible for McCain to say that he had not really known about the ads, that the formulation "I approve this message" was just boilerplate. But he didn't.
"Actually, they are not lies," he said.
Actually, they are.
McCain has turned ugly. His dishonesty would be unacceptable in any politician, but McCain has always set his own bar higher than most. He has contempt for most of his colleagues for that very reason: They lie. He tells the truth. He internalizes the code of the McCains -- his grandfather, his father: both admirals of the shining sea. He serves his country differently, that's all -- but just as honorably. No more, though.