Is it only a coincidence that the first article I read upon arriving today in Ohio for my annual pilgrimage to the Heartland was this one from Victor Davis Hanson? Maybe not. Hanson offers a sensible and spirited argument about how we might conquer whatever it is that seems to be ailing Americans today; from the economy to immigration to the war to personal depression. A good deal of our recent pessimism, he thinks, stems from a failure to appreciate the value of and properly honor hard work. And this comes from habits born out of lacking much of a need to do much hard work. It seems to him that we have had a couple of generations who forgot that affluence (to say nothing of freedom) was never won but through massive work and sacrifice and was never kept but through constant diligence and effort. But VDH does not despair. He thinks necessity may awaken our latent capacities and that a new generation so awakened may turn out to be hungrier than the one that’s running the show now.
If there’s anything like a grain of truth (and, really, I think there’s more than that) in Hanson’s hopes for the younger generation, then I think McCain should examine this article very carefully. This is the way he should be talking to young people. It’s appealing because it is empowering instead of merely critical (gratuitous reference to Madonna excepted) . . . and it appeals to their vanity and sense of rebellion. It’s saying: "You can do what your parent’s generation couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. You can make America even greater than she is now and make it stick. You can achieve even higher levels of success than you had hoped to achieve and, more important, you can ground your success in something tangible and solid instead of the latest trends in finance, academia and salesmanship. You can do real things, make real money, and achieve lasting rewards." Considering the unreal nature of much of this campaign’s rhetoric and the lack of solidity in most of the recommendations for young people (Hope! Change!) tell me how a serious and a hard argument won’t sound more authentic? Real hope and real change is going to entail real work and real sacrifice. These happen to be things that John McCain can speak about well and with real authority. Critics who say he needs to be careful about over-doing the stern grandpa who "walked to school uphill both ways without shoes in a snow-storm" routine have a point; but it’s a point that is just as easily over-stated as the thing they’re criticizing. It’s important for McCain not to be critical of the young (and anyway, that’s too easy) but he’s right not to flatter them.
As we approach the Olympic season, consider the coaches you may have had when you were young. When presented with the choice between a mere flatterer and stern but big-hearted coach who will show his devotion to you through sacrifice, real athletes almost always pick the latter. But the choice is not always so clear. Sometimes a coach may mean well but, though he understands perfectly the fundamentals of his sport, he can never convince his potential athletes that he is anything other than an overbearing jerk. This is because such coaches seem to enjoy complaining about the negative or (alternately) seem overwhelmed by the negative; everywhere he looks he sees things that need improving. These coaches don’t inspire confidence in their athletes because they don’t seem either to have it themselves or to really love their athletes. And so the athletes don’t trust the intentions of this kind of coach. It will be John McCain’s (and the GOP’s) task this fall to convince voters (and especially young voters) that they do have confidence in themselves and in America and, especially, in young people. They need to offer a real path toward success that calls for hard work and they need to pledge to honor hard work.