Now, with less than three weeks to the end, he comes to the country staggering toward defeat, his pride and honor certainly diminished by the incoherence of his campaign and the absurdity of the choice he agreed to when it came to picking someone who would share a national ticket charged with talking, coaxing, massaging the country through a tough and turbulent time. And as the clock winds toward the conclusion, America looks and listens to a different John McCain than the man who captured so many hearts when he first ran for president, only eight years ago.
That guy is MIA, missing in action, held captive by ideologues who dominate his strategy sessions and what is left of the Republican party. So John McCain sat there on the stage at Hofstra Wednesday night, looking and sounding like an angry old man, bitter at the lack of traction -- or belief -- in his candidacy, uncomfortable with what he has allowed himself to become: a cranky senior citizen seething with resentment over how his glory days are lost in the long shadow cast by youth and change.
It is a sad story: a proud and independent man permits a handful of advisers to take his hard-earned reputation and alter it to such an extent that the original is now hard to recognize, nearly invisible behind a curtain of cynical ads and the preposterous pronouncements of a woman whose candidacy is an insult to intelligence.
John McCain used to know that the country was larger than any crowd he could ever draw; that it was filled with ordinary people who live their lives in the middle of a political spectrum, too busy making ends meet, to be driven to extremes by the fevers and fears that consume so many of the talk-radio set. He used to be aware that in order to win, a candidate could not simply preach to the converted, snarl and run with a resentment aimed at the fringe, the mixed mobs of the curious and angry that turn out for Palin.
Now, with time running out, he has only a few days left to try and reclaim himself, to find the man he once was, the whole man who could charm a crowd with his version of the truth. He criss-crosses a country filling up with fear and debt, a land fighting two wars as it fights for a weekly paycheck, a nation where more people worry about General Motors than think about General Petraeus. Political campaigns, like much of life itself, often revolve around one universal issue: the absence of money.
So, when John McCain tosses out a name from yesterday, William Ayers, it means nothing to people who want only to be told about tomorrow. These are the people who vote, the people who have seen the distant dream of retirement crushed by the collapse of so many 401K's in -- what? -- less than a month. They have no time for spite or a candidate's smirk or snarl. They are consumed with concern for the value of their home, the stability of their job, the immediate future of their family.
Unfortunately for McCain, he did little to stop the thieves who took his honor and reputation and tossed it out like so many discarded items for a yard sale, figuring that Americans could once again -- one more time -- be fooled into voting their fears. But what they really did was take the one Republican who may have had a legitimate shot at surviving the disaster that has been the Bush administration and strip him of the basic appeal he once had for people looking for someone who could lead.
The dreary dialogue of the past few weeks has finally managed to make the man look his age, look old and tired and embarrassed to be defending Palin while awkwardly injecting the absurd -- Ayers -- into the national dialogue when nearly everyone is riveted on the obvious: the family budget.
Soon, the 'Straight Talk Express' will bank west and head for the Arizona desert and election eve. And John McCain will sit up front, staring out the window, exhausted, as the plane crosses the land he loves and the people -- millions of them -- he failed to connect with because while he was once indeed a prisoner of war, he has spent the last ten weeks letting himself become a prisoner of the past.