There is something screamingly funny about the media’s lecturing John McCain about the impropriety of his saying in New Hampshire last week that "This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." Joe Klein of Timewrote: "This is the ninth presidential campaign I've covered. I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate. It smacks of desperation. It renews questions about whether McCain has the right temperament for the presidency. How sad." Sad? I’ll just bet he’s shedding tears about it. Likewise David Wright of ABC News, who said to Senator McCain in an interview: "But what you seem to be saying there is that it's all about personal ambition for him and not about what he honestly thinks is right for the country."

For the last five years and upwards, the media have been saying as scurrilous things or worse about President Bush, and routinely reporting without comment or challenge the words of his fiercest critics — who accuse him of "lying" in order to take the country to war in Iraq. In all that time, I cannot recall an occasion when a reporter came back at one of those critics with the suggestion that the president might have gone to war in good faith and therefore on behalf of "what he honestly thinks is right for the country." Yet now that Senator McCain is "playing hardball," as they put it when the cleats are on the other foot, it is suddenly a matter for scandal for him to call his opponent’s good faith into question. When Senator McCain claimed not to be questioning Senator Obama’s patriotism on ABC’s "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, the host shot back at him: "But that is questioning his patriotism. When you say someone would rather lose a war, a candidate, that's questioning his honor, his decency, his character."

Much as it annoys me to admit it — and so to seem to acquiesce in the media’s flagrant double standard — Mr Stephanopoulos is right. Mind you, I am inclined to think that Senator McCain is right too — by which I mean that I am deeply suspicious he is right in saying Senator Obama is prepared to put his own political imperatives ahead of his country’s best interests. That would also be my read of the Democrat’s extraordinary contortions over his own attitude to the success of the "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq and his commitment to an artificial timetable for the withdrawal of those troops. All the same, I think the Republican is wrong to have said so publicly — and for the same reason that I think it is wrong for the Democrats to accuse the president of lying, even if they believe their own accusation. For to call into question’s an opponent’s honor or good faith is to proclaim him — and, incidentally, oneself — beyond the pale of democratic debate. British Parliamentary rules used to recognize this when they proclaimed any use of the word "lie" or "lying" to be "unparliamentary language" and banned it in debate.

To question an opponent’s good faith is not to engage in debate but to put an end to debate. The only honorable recourse to such a charge is a violent one, which is why accusations of lying or cowardice were once thought automatically to require a challenge by the man so impugned to mortal combat with his accuser. Not for the first time, I regret the desuetude into which dueling has fallen in our public life — not because I want to see the candidates shooting at each other but because any recent examples of public men who had been driven to that extremity could serve as salutary warnings to the rest of them of what are — or ought to be — the limits of civilized discourse.

There is a reason why that will never happen, alas. It is because the culture of authenticity which has succeeded the honor culture in this country and which believes that, much more shameful than a mere lie, is insincerity and a refusal publicly to air what one really believes. Or feels to use the common and telling idiom of the day. Paradoxically, the result of this cult of sincerity is that hardly anyone ever does say what he really believes — unless there is a calculation that the scandal of it will fall more on one’s opponent than upon oneself. That calculation is not always right, as Senator McCain may find out to his cost. In his favor is the fact that foolishly hyperbolic abuse has become so common a feature of our politics that no one will take any notice.