The funniest and most revealing moment in Thursday night’s Republican candidate debate came when Senator John McCain said of Osama bin Ladin:
We will catch him. We will bring him to justice and I’ll follow him to the gates of hell.
Actually, John, he’s in Pakistan now; so you really don’t need to go all the way to the gates of hell. But thanks for offering.
And thanks, too, for the tough guy talk. It seems as though that’s all we American have left. We’ve lost in Iraq. We’re losing in Afghanistan. North Korea has bested us. We’re powerless to stop Iran from developing an A-bomb. But we can always count on our leaders to step up to the mic and talk like they’re characters from a cheesy ‘80s action movie. In fact, I think the only place the US wins anymore is in the movies, so it’s not surprising that someone running for President would speak like he’s playing the President in one. And as if this hall-of-mirrors isn’t strange enough, watching McCain that night from the audience was a real ‘80s action movie star, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – who could probably win the Presidency if only the Constitution would let him.
But still, that whole “gates of hell” nonsense was a little over the top. A tad overwrought, as it were. Not that it won’t play well. In our current moment few things say “I’m presidential” as effectively as issuing impotent threats against people who are unafraid of you. Nonetheless, the phrase seemed to be a little too much. Until it occurred to me that McCain’s talk is actually in the classic American strain, specifically its Herman Melville mode. He’s clearly, if unconsciously, echoing Ahab at the end of that most over the top and overwrought of novels, Moby Dick:
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.
(For a truly delicious rendering of those lines check out Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the cheesiest – perhaps even the extra cheesiest - of all ‘80s action films.)