Country First was the inspiring slogan that headlined Senator John McCain’s doomed 2008 campaign for the US presidency. I was resident in Washington DC during the last stretch of that historic election, which the Republican lost handily to the change-and-hope insurgency of Barack Obama. Some aspects of McCain’s quest were comparable to the ill-fated voyage of the legendary ship Santa Maria. As it battled through extreme storms to the new world, one chronicler noted "the people on the shore blamed the storms on the ship rather than on the weather". His forlorn quest for the presidency is a reminder of a universal political truth: luck has a lot to do with it. McCain was unlucky to be the nominee for the party whose incumbent president — George W Bush — had willed an unpopular war in Iraq and presided over the subprime property crash and the financial crisis of 2008. And for all his well-earned status as a maverick lawmaker, he paled, literally and symbolically, by comparison with his...

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