• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Who Is John McCain?

It is little remembered today that the political career of John Sidney McCain III, a career now thoroughly laundered in mythology, began with the help of several fortuities. In 1973 he returned from his five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam to Washington, or technically Arlington, Virginia, which had been his childhood home for more years than any other single place as he followed his father, a celebrated four-star admiral, on the elder McCain’s naval assignments. He was one of 591 prisoners of war repatriated early that year as a result of Operation Homecoming, and was selected by the editors of US News & World Report as the one returning POW who would be given a thirteen-page spread in the magazine to describe his ordeal (having a famous father never hurts), which brought him the same kind of attention and acclaim that had earlier, for different purposes, been showered upon the young Hillary Diane Rodham and the young John Forbes Kerry.

By 1977 he held the post of naval liaison to Congress, his father’s old position, and shortly thereafter attained the rank of captain. It was on Capitol Hill that he met and befriended important senators—Gary Hart of Colorado, William Cohen of Maine, and most of all John Tower of Texas, the buddy to whom he was closest during a period of his life that included its share of carousing and irreparably strained his marriage to his first wife, Carol. When asked to explain the dissolution of their marriage in the late 1970s, she said, “I attribute it more to John turning forty and wanting to be twenty-five again than I do to anything else.”

But here was the first piece of luck, for his split from Carol enabled him to romance Cindy Hensley, an Arizonan seventeen years his junior whom he had met while vacationing in Honolulu in 1979 (he was separated) and with whom he was in love, he has written, by the end of their first evening together.

They married in May 1980, and from this union tumbled other fortuities. That she lived in Arizona meant that McCain would be moving to a state—with which he’d had even less association than Hillary Clinton had had with New York in 1999—whose growing population would gain it an extra congressional seat after the 1980 census, a circumstance on which his eye was keenly fixed. Her background—her father, Jim, ran the country’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship—meant he would have the money and connections to launch the political career he had been coveting since he started meeting those famous pols. McCain hardly knew a soul in Arizona, but already he was telling friends in 1981 that he would swoop into the new seat in 1982 and then succeed Barry Goldwater in the Senate when Goldwater retired.

Then, one piece of bad luck: the new district would be cut in Tucson, not Phoenix. But this was soon followed by the greatest fortuity of all. John Rhodes, the Phoenix Republican who was the House minority leader, unexpectedly announced his retirement. The McCains lived just outside the Rhodes district, but Cindy’s money ensured that they were able to buy a house in it and move in immediately. During a primary campaign against three other Republicans, he was, inevitably, branded a carpetbagger and opportunist. Confronted with these allegations at a candidates’ forum, he delivered a riposte that would win him the seat and would foreshadow the kind of rhetorical agility that has so impressed reporters. The point of his zinger of a last sentence was not lost on his audience even then:

Listen, pal. I spent twenty-two years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.

As Matt Welch notes in McCain, this wasn’t exactly true; but invoking northern Virginia, where he had actually lived for a combined decade or more, would hardly have put across the desired point. As McCain’s career has shown, sometimes the narrative is far more powerful than mere facts.

Twenty-six years later, McCain has secured the Republican presidential nomination and launched his general election campaign, itself the result of even more happy coincidences—Rudy Giuliani’s inexplicable decision to skip all the early contests, Mitt Romney’s unsteadiness on the national stage, the absence of a consensus on a “real conservative” choice, and press reports suggesting that the initially unpopular troop surge in Iraq, on which he’d placed his bet in late 2006 when President Bush was considering the Iraq Study Group report, was beginning to achieve some success. This should by all rights be a Democratic year, but the Democrats have been locked in ferocious battle, ensuring that one final piece of good fortune awaits McCain in that he will in all likelihood face a black man who no longer “transcends race” in anything like the way he did a few months ago or, if she keeps fighting and somehow manages to pull it off, the country’s most polarizing woman, who could secure her party’s nomination only by alienating large sections of its base.

But as Arnold Palmer reportedly once said, “It’s a funny thing, the more I practice, the luckier I get.” McCain’s career is undeniably built also upon skill and shrewdness unusual among contemporary American politicians. It’s not that he’s been an especially accomplished legislator, although passage of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“Bickra,” in wonk-speak) took years and much resolve, as Elizabeth Drew shows in her engrossing Citizen McCain from 2002.1 Nor has he been an especially energetic servant of his Arizona constituents. Welch even asserts that McCain “is infamous throughout his home state as someone who studiously avoids mixing with the little people.”

But what McCain has been, of course, is a brilliant strategist of the culture of Washington, and particularly of the arbiters of conventional wisdom in the national press. “The press loves McCain,” Chris Matthews said in 2006. “We’re his base.” McCain understands intuitively how reputations are built and maintained. As David Brock and Paul Waldman of the liberal nonprofit group Media Matters for America put it in Free Ride, McCain has “cracked the media code” of how to turn these ostensible adversaries into his allies and, on numerous occasions, even his apologists.

He became the press’s darling in 1999 and 2000, during his first presidential run, the famous “Straight-Talk Express” days. He has since transformed himself into a very different and much more conventional conservative politician. But the fact of that transformation hasn’t really taken hold yet in the national press. There is therefore the expectation—or, among liberals, fear—that the mass media will give McCain the benefit of every doubt against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The tendency is already in evidence here and there—the proposed elimination of the federal gas tax for the summer, endorsed first by McCain and then by Clinton, resulted in Clinton receiving far more criticism for pandering than McCain did.

So the season has come for anti-McCain books from detractors. Whether the three under review here have any impact on the election discourse will depend, to some extent, on the course of events and the effectiveness of the Democratic fall campaign. But each of the three—all follow the same basic template of critically reassessing the stages of McCain’s career—makes persuasive arguments that while there has been much to respect in McCain in the past, there remain today only shards and vestiges of that man; that in doing what he had to do to become the nominee of a party of orthodox conservatism, he has so sublimated his honorable instincts that they have all but atrophied. He’s not only adopted domestic policy positions he’d long opposed, he has openly pandered to the conservative Republican base by supporting most of Bush’s positions in legislation on the treatment of detainees.

The McCain myth, as we know, is built on the foundation of his five and a half years of captivity in Hoa Lo Prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was flying a bombing raid in October 1967; his plane was shot down, he parachuted into the middle of a lake in Hanoi, and, with two broken arms and one broken knee, swam to shore. He was stabbed and beaten—bone sticking out of his right knee—and taken to Hoa Lo. His captors did not set his fractures and tortured him regularly, trying to drag false admissions out of him. When they learned that he had a famous father—who was, by 1968, the commander of all US naval forces in the Pacific—they offered him an early release for PR purposes. Because military regulations held that captured prisoners must be released in the order in which they were captured, he refused, spending much of the remainder of his captivity in solitary confinement. It’s a staggering story, told most grippingly, in my reading, by David Foster Wallace.2

It is also just the right tale of heroism for an unwanted war. If McCain had shot down the greatest number of North Vietnamese, who would celebrate him? If he had led a great raid, most people would be indifferent to him, or—worse—Seymour Hersh or some other investigative journalist would likely have found out by now that innocent women and children were slaughtered. It was by suffering in a cell, serving as a kind of metaphor for American suffering in a war most Americans gave up on early in his confinement, but at the same time holding fast to principle under the most unimaginable circumstances, thereby redeeming some notion of American honor in a dishonorable situation, that McCain became an American hero. Liberal opponents of the war, who seldom acknowledged the repressive brutality of the North Vietnamese regime, were put on the defensive by the story of how he was tortured.

The tale has had a particularly talismanic effect on Baby Boomer journalists, many of whom probably opposed the war when they were young, or did not serve, or both, and thus reflexively grant McCain great moral authority. Brock and Waldman write:

And since few of the reporters who cover him were themselves in the armed forces in Vietnam, there may be no small amount of guilt involved, or at least the belief that they have not earned the right to ask him critical questions. On a 2006 episode of Hardball, Bloomberg News reporter Roger Simon noted that reporters have given McCain “a break or two or three or four or five hundred,” to which host Chris Matthews immediately replied, “Because he served in Vietnam, and a lot of us didn’t.” …[Journalists] testify that his POW experience is not only the sum total of McCain’s “character,” but constitutes the lens through which character itself must be viewed in any race in which McCain participates.

  1. 1

    Drew and Simon & Schuster have reissued Citizen McCain this year with an excellent new introduction by the author that raises all the pertinent questions about McCain today and is well worth reading.

  2. 2

    Wallace covered the Straight-Talk Express for Rolling Stone in 2000. His extended essay, “Up, Simba,” appears in his Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (Little, Brown, 2005). “Up, Simba” is being reissued this month as a book, with an introduction by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, under the title McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight-Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking about Hope (Back Bay). This new edition was not yet available at press time.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print