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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

McCain pulls political stunner

John McCain s stunning victory, the biggest comeback and upset since Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, is a reminder of the essential character of American politics since the end of the New Deal-Great Society era and the conclusion of the Vietnam War:

This is a nation firmly rooted in center-right politics skeptical of big-government social programs even as it applies a big-government response to an economic crisis and worried about 21st century dangers in a world that has been shaped by American power and will.

Mr. McCain s victory symbolizes the hold that Vietnam still has on the American consciousness and the appeal that military heroism always has held for the electorate. It is, moreover, testimony to the terror that the word socialist, wielded with devastating skill by McCain sympathizers against Sen. Barack Obama, incites in the American conversation.

The triumph of Mr. McCain, who lost the Republican nomination to President Bush in 2000 and whose campaign was left for dead only 13 months ago, was as well a remarkable personal triumph for a man whose personal courage allowed him to endure 5 years of torture and travail in a North Vietnam prison and a sense of isolation in his own party that can be matched in Western politics only by that endured by Winston Churchill in Great Britain.

America s new president is a curious combination of independence and dependence, of impulse and probity. His rise was fueled in equal measure by a maverick sensibility and by the indispensable entree and financial support provided by his father, grandfather, and second wife. In his life as well as in his campaign, he trusted his instincts more than his intellect, and yet his is a cultivated mind, watered by the reading of serious books on serious subjects.

His unlikely triumph was helped by the collapse of the youth vote, which was expected to be the oxygen of the Obama campaign, and by the resilience of religion in American civic life, a force that Republicans mastered long before they knew the governor of Alaska but a force that Sarah Palin helped them harness in her remarkable 10-week star turn on the U.S. stage.

Two other factors helped power Mr. McCain past Mr. Obama, who seemed to have an insurmountable lead even in the last weekend of the campaign.

One was the appeal of experience. Americans were unwilling to take the risk of putting a nation already at risk in terms of national and economic security in untested hands, even in the hands of one of the most gifted and compelling politicians of the 21st century.

They also were unwilling to deliver both the legislative and executive branches into the hands of the Democrats. Americans, who have given both branches of government to one party for only six of the 28 years since Ronald Reagan s election, seem to prefer divided government. Americans have spoken again, in defiance of polls and pundits.

America holds few stories as dramatic and poignant as the life of its 44th president, a natural rebel who now will rule the world s oldest democracy, an enemy of authority who is now the ultimate earthly authority. His life, much like the life of the nation he now leads, has been a grand adventure spanning 72 years, a mixture of trial and triumph, and one whose most vital chapter is only now beginning to be written.



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