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The Non-Conformist

Citizen McCain

by Elizabeth Drew
Simon and Schuster, 181 pp., $23.00

John McCain’s first hero was Robert Jordan, the hero of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s novel ends with Jordan dying in a struggle for what he believes to be a good cause. The pages of McCain’s Worth the Fighting For (written with the help of Mark Salter) are strewn with tributes to his several heroes, and they are an odd collection for a politician. With the exception of Ted Williams, they are all fighters for political causes, and most lose in the end.

This roll call of heroic losers may explain why McCain is one of the few politicians still alive who can stir some enthusiasm in our half-dead electorate. To lose a fight for a good cause confers an aura of gallantry on the loser, and gallantry attracts a public. McCain seems instinctively drawn to the gallant act. He is a romantic in a line of work now viewed by much of the public as a shabby conspiracy among money hustlers.

This may explain too why many of his colleagues dislike him. Because money has become the mother’s milk of American politics, politicians spend much of their time trying to cadge campaign contributions from the rich. Waving the tin cup is hard on anyone’s self-esteem; for a congressman the mortification must be doubly painful when a McCain is winning Boy Scout points by preaching that politicians are corrupted by being on the take.

But what alternative is there for the man who yearns to do the state some service? To win election, candidates now need what Senator Everett Dirksen used to call “real money.” (“A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”) The New York Times estimated that the amount spent in the 2000 elections was $3 billion. Joseph Napolitan, a political consultant, told the Times: “I don’t understand why someone would spend $2 million to get elected to a $125,000-a-year job. But they do it all the time.”

Money’s commanding role in politics has provided McCain with his most famous cause: reforming a campaign finance system that nobody likes and almost no politician can live without. It was the fight for reform that lifted him above the mediocrity of the Senate and gave him enough public stature to make an effective run at the last Republican presidential nomination.

For years Washington professionals, echoed by their media chorus, had insisted that campaign finance reform was not an issue the public cared about. This made it McCain’s kind of issue: hopeless and worth fighting for. He made himself an amusing, then insistent, then boring nuisance to fellow Republicans, who were committed to the curious proposition that their party was singularly dependent for existence on handouts from the treasuries of Croesus.

As Bill Clinton’s gaudy fund-raising excesses suggested, Democrats were as reliant as Republicans on rich customers shopping for compliant statesmen. (“Gaining access” was the euphemism. Big spenders weren’t actually buying congressmen, senators, and presidents, everyone said—they were only buying “access.” Which meant that living, breathing congressmen, senators, and presidents answered their phone calls, instead of machines that say you can leave a message after the beep.) Because Republicans objected so stridently about McCain’s reform proposals, Democrats—the fakers!—were able to pretend they were just as pure as McCain was.

In any case the matter developed as a fight among Republicans: the party faithful, old guard, establishment, call it what you like, versus the reformer. Republicans hate reform. They have always hated reform. They hated it when Theodore Roosevelt tried to force it on them a hundred years ago. They hated it when Eisenhower and the internationalists from the east succeeded in forcing it on them in the 1950s. They have hated the northeastern internationalists ever since, have gradually purged the party of them, and reconstituted it as a party of Southerners, evangelical Christians, and small-town prairie folk. Now here was this nuisance McCain. They’d thought they were getting a hero: all that agony through all those years in the Hanoi Hilton. And now—some hero! Just another damned reformer.

They roughed him up a bit when he insolently pushed for congressional action on his campaign reform nonsense, but he seemed to be a slow learner. He decided to run for the party’s presidential nomination, though the nominee had already been chosen by people immune to the reforming impulse—the establishment, old guard, call them what you like—the kind of men who assemble money, governors, and similar necessities with a lot of telephone calls, then lay out the plan in a conference call.

They represented the concentrated wealth of the Republican Party, and their man was George W. Bush. Republicans experienced in such things were awed by the Texas-size bundle they put behind him: the biggest assemblage of money ever gathered for the purpose of obtaining a mere presidential nomination.

McCain decided he would make a run at the nomination anyhow. He had always wanted to be president, not that he had some great program to achieve, he says, but the ambition was on him, and he believed his military and political experience made him more qualified than any of the other men running. He would talk about campaign finance reform, but it would be just one element of his overall attack.

That campaign was a model of gallant battle, if only because McCain was so obviously doomed from the start. Hopelessly underfinanced, he chartered a bus, invited the news people to climb aboard, and went to New Hampshire to fight against the concentrated wealth of his own party. It was a chapter out of Don Quixote, made all the more comical when the New Hampshire voting, and later Michigan’s, showed that McCain would make a formidable vote-getter indeed. More formidable by far than Bush, a man glaringly deficient in the crowd-pleasing arts.

The party’s concentrated-wealth wing, anything but thrilled by McCain’s way with the masses, could only instruct him in the authority of real money; they simply buried him under mountains of it in states where the making of the people’s choice was confined to officially certified Republicans. So much for a McCain presidency. His power to charm Democrats and independents cut no ice with men who had the White House in mind and the wherewithal necessary for gaining access to it. To update the wisdom of Damon Runyon, the race is not always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or the election to the candidate rolling in money, but that’s the way to bet it.

Time’s passage has not diminished McCain’s bitterness about the brutality of Pat Robertson’s Christian right in the South Carolina primary. He says Robertson “contacted thousands of evangelical households to warn them not to vote for me and allege that my friend, Warren Rudman, who is Jewish, was bigoted against Christian voters.”

The attack of the political parsons was just part of the Bush group’s assault. Direct mail and attack ads came from the gun lobby, the anti-abortion lobby, and various other Bush money outlets masquerading under names like “Americans for Tax Reform” and “National Smokers Alliance.” Bush’s surrogate spenders, McCain says, ran six times as many ads as he did in South Carolina:

You couldn’t turn on a television or radio without hearing an attack on me every few minutes…. In e-mails, faxes, flyers, postcards, telephone calls, and talk radio, groups and individuals circulated all kinds of wild rumors about me, from the old Manchurian Candidate allegation to charges of having sired children with prostitutes.

A Republican conservative speaking unkindly of the Christian right is, like a Democratic liberal denouncing organized labor, the rarest kind of political bird. The Christian right is now so vital to Republican success that party leaders call it one of their “core” constituencies; i.e., a voting bloc that must in no circumstance be offended. Yet McCain, while insisting that he is still a conservative, goes at the evangelicals with something close to savagery.

Consider him on Paul Weyrich, a noisy gadfly of the politico-Christian world, or, in McCain’s words, “an often intemperate and pompous defender of the faith.” In a long-ago committee hearing Weyrich once patronized McCain with a display of such superior piety that McCain is still fuming:

Weyrich possesses the attributes of a Dickensian villain. Corpulent and dyspeptic, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer as if life in general were an unpleasant experience, he is the embodiment of the caricature often used to unfairly malign all religious conservatives. He is the joyless preacher who for the sake of God and country sorrowfully consents to participate in the profane business of politics….

His summation: “a pompous, self-serving son of a bitch.”

Here McCain is recalling Weyrich’s testimony against the first President Bush’s appointment of John Tower to be secretary of defense. Tower had been attacked as a heavy drinker and “womanizer.” McCain concludes with a reflection of his own on the nature of God:

…Weyrich fairly trembled for his country as he considered God was just and not likely to let pass unnoticed the presence of a boozy reprobate in the highest councils of our government. I don’t know why not. God has seemed to suffer more than a few such scoundrels lowering the moral standards of public office since the very first days of the Republic’s founding, and still He continues to bless our country with His bounty.

McCain has clearly advanced to a new stage of his career. Now he no longer feels compelled to be discreet about his discontents with conservative domination of his party. Personal dislikes and policy disagreements with party leaders are voiced in remark-ably plain speech. If his first memoir, Faith of My Fathers, was a campaign biography, this one is a book of self-discovery. Here McCain declares independence from the encrusted dogmas of conservatism.

He keeps saying that he remains a conservative, but this book does nothing to confirm it. It is the work of someone who has found out, rather late in life, who he is and what he truly believes. Self-discovery seems to give him the nerve to speak his mind with a candor rare among politicians. The result is a book packed with extraordinary indiscretions for a still-practicing politician.

He speaks critically of the Republican Senate leaders, Trent Lott and Don Nickles. He insults retiring Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, saying he abandoned a principled stand on foreign policy to gain a few votes in a 1996 presidential primary. With apparent pleasure he recalls telling a fellow Republican, Senator Exon of Nebraska, “You’re a goddamn liar.” During the same onset of high temper, he had to restrain himself from publicly denouncing another, Senator Shelby of Alabama, for “bad faith.”

He criticizes conservative Republicans for pursuing isolationism in foreign policy. He criticizes Newt Gingrich’s resort to “scorched earth tactics” that broke Democratic control of the House of Representatives and led to years of partisan bitterness. He accuses conservatives of letting “healthy skepticism about government sink into something unhealthy, an embittered loathing of the federal government.”

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