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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.

Even so, attaining icon status took a while. He first made national headlines as a senator in the late 1980s, as part of the Keating Five, a group of senators who had lobbied in defense of a failing savings-and-loan company, owned by Charles Keating, that was under investigation during the S&L scandals. Keating had made large campaign contributions, including $112,000 to McCain, as well as paid for trips to his Bahamas house. But McCain was less involved with Keating than some of the other senators, and he got only a minor rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee, which said his conduct was “questionable.”

McCain seems to have learned two lessons from the episode. First, he decided that campaign finance reform was an important issue to pursue (partly on the merits, partly to repair his reputation). Second, as Welch notes, he learned “the practical benefits of media over-exposure”:

By answering hostile questioning for nearly two full hours, until the reporters had exhausted their lines of inquiry, McCain found himself praised by his hometown paper for manfully owning up to his misdeeds. By making himself available to almost any reporter at any hour, he found that he had sown some useful empathy.

So the courtship started there. And McCain’s new openness with the press may have extended beyond merely “owning up to his misdeeds.” Brock and Waldman, citing a 2000 Boston Globe article, say “there is considerable evidence that McCain’s office was the source of leaks…that…undermined three of the four other senators.” One of the alleged leaks was of a memo that made the role of another Keating senator, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, seem more incriminating than had been known. Another leak, of a Senate ethics panel report recommending that McCain be dropped as a target of inquiry, led to a New York Times article the very next day. McCain denied under oath in 1992 that he was responsible for any leaks, but according to Brock and Waldman, the man who led a probe of the leaks for the General Accounting Office has said he thinks McCain was responsible, as do DeConcini and former GOP senator Warren Rudman.

McCain’s post-Keating efforts on campaign finance attached him to a good-government issue that liberal editorial boards love. It also separated him from most of his fellow Republicans. This is when the words “McCain” and “maverick” started appearing together regularly—also with regard to his effort during the same period to raise the federal tobacco tax. It all culminated in his first presidential run in 2000, when journalists were astounded to be invited into his inner sanctum and made privy to his unfiltered thoughts. Brock and Waldman cite a column by the conservative writer Andrew Ferguson describing the seduction process:

Here’s what happens. The reporter—call him Joe—hops aboard McCain’s old campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. He knows the Arizona senator’s well-known charms. He will not be seduced.

Chatting amiably, Joe asks about a Republican colleague. With ironic solemnity, McCain responds by describing his fellow senator with an anatomical epithet. Against his better judgment, Joe chuckles. (Never heard that from a presidential candidate before!)

He asks a probing question about McCain’s personal life—and the senator answers without hesitation, never asking to go off the record. (Is there nothing this guy won’t be candid about?)

Joe’s detachment is already crumbling when McCain offhandedly mentions a self-deprecating anecdote from his time “in prison.” The reporter knows the reference is to McCain’s years as a POW in Vietnam, back when Joe was sucking bong hits at Princeton. (Guilt, guilt, guilt…)

McCain asks Joe about his kids, by name, then recommends a new book he’s been reading—something unexpectedly literary (I.B. Singer’s short stories?). Seamlessly, he mentions an article Joe wrote—not last week, but in 1993!

The reporter has never voted for a Republican in his life. But he’s a goner.

The vicious campaign that George W. Bush ran against McCain in South Carolina, finally forcing him out of the race after McCain had won seven primaries, only made him an even more sympathetic figure. He emerged from the race the closest thing American politics has had to a hero, even to many liberals, since possibly Bobby Kennedy.

In the Bush years, the halo got brighter. He was of course much sought after by television after September 11. His imprimatur was crucial to Bush’s “war on terror.” And he still continued to go his own way here and there. Campaign finance reform finally passed in 2002, over the howling objections of conservatives, who continued to loathe McCain because of his various apostasies and on the simple grounds that if that many liberals and journalists liked him, something had to be wrong. He considered, for a few fleeting moments, John Kerry’s 2004 offer to be his running mate. The love affair with the press only intensified.

Those few who bothered to try to lift the curtain noticed, especially as the Bush years progressed and he began to prepare for 2008, that there were aspects to McCain’s personality and career that didn’t quite fit the myth. There are three main ones.

First of all, we have the matter of his famous temper. This has received press attention from time to time. But it hasn’t really hurt him, because it’s so easy to spin “violent temper” into “passionate beliefs” and make it sound positive. In fact it’s not too much to say that a trait that might have mortally wounded other politicians has been described as a strength: “The flip side of ‘temper’ is feistiness,” The Economist explained in a typical assessment from 2007.

Brock and Waldman, Welch, and Cliff Schecter each write at length on McCain’s anger, cataloguing instances of him popping off at fellow senators and others and holding grudges for long periods of time, and then denying flatly in on-the-record quotes that he ever loses his temper or holds a grudge. Schecter, a freelance liberal commentator who contributes frequently to The Huffington Post, recounts, for the first time, a tale—confirmed to him, he writes, by three Arizona reporters—that in 1992, after Cindy McCain teased her husband about his thinning hair, McCain snapped at her, in front of the reporters and two staffers: “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c—.” One wonders if on such occasions she reminds her husband who it was that made his political career possible. She has recently called the idea that her husband has a temper “a concoction.”

The second issue is more substantive and deals with McCain’s policy record—both his votes as a senator and the positions he’s taking as presidential candidate. In many matters, it is far from consistent. Schecter’s The Real McCain chronicles, in fine-grain detail, McCain’s votes and positions, showing that they often seem to reflect hypocrisy, flip-flopping, and pure expediency, rather than the political courage for which he is famous.

In a telling example, McCain has backed off the very issue that first won him such goodwill. For a while after the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, McCain stuck with the issue, supporting reform of the so-called 527 groups that can spend large sums for advertisements attacking an opposition candidate and not exceed the limits on contributions (the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were one such). But by July 2006, his old allies on campaign finance—Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, Republican Congressman Chris Shays, and Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan—introduced a bill to shore up the public financing of presidential campaigns. McCain had put his name on essentially the same piece of legislation in 2003. Three years later, it was absent.

Earlier this year, McCain unilaterally informed—by law, he was supposed to ask—the Federal Election Commission that he would not abide by primary spending limits he had previously accepted. He faces potentially severe financial penalties for doing so, although the FEC has become deeply politicized and hamstrung. In any event, McCain doesn’t talk much about campaign finance reform today, instead concentrating his rhetoric about reform on the far more conservative-friendly topic of cutting government spending and pork.

Such instances are numerous. He voted against the Bush tax cuts originally; he now supports extending them. On immigration reform—another issue on which his views were welcome in the press and among liberals—he has stopped talking about “comprehensive” reform that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, and begun emphasizing the border fence. In 1999, he said, “I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.” By 2006, he said its repeal “wouldn’t bother me any.” And last month, McCain’s campaign indicated that he would no longer continue his long-held support for adding rape-and-incest exceptions to the GOP platform plank that opposes abortion. This is as extreme a position on abortion as exists in American electoral politics.

Most strikingly of all, the man who was repeatedly tortured by the Vietnamese has backpedaled even on the issue of torture by American officials. In 2005, he inserted language into the Detainee Treatment Act that Bush disliked because it forbade the military to use some methods of interrogation. The next year, after the Supreme Court had rebuked the Bush administration positions on detention in its Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision, McCain fought the administration for long enough to receive favorable attention in the press. But he finally declared—in a much-discussed “compromise” with the administration—that he was satisfied with the infamous Military Commissions Act, which contained provisions that prevented prisoners from challenging the basis of their detention. The bill gave the White House the power to ignore the Geneva Conventions if it wished to.

The record, then, shows five serious shifts of position—four of them on some of the most contentious issues before the country, and one, on campaign finance reform, which was once the accomplishment most closely identified with him. Surely any other politician with this record would have been called a “flip-flopper” (he does appear to have remained consistent on global warming, whose existence he acknowledges and which he says he would address). The book by Brock and Waldman provides much critical insight into the important question of how the press failed to deal with McCain’s actions.3 They note that not only were no accusations of inconsistency made, but by and large the press shielded McCain from any such charges after the Military Commissions Act passed:

Yet in the week or so between the announcement of the “compromise” and the more thorough analyses of the final product, McCain seemed to disappear from the story. Though he had received reams of praise while the negotiations were going on, once the bill’s details were revealed, hardly anyone in the news media held McCain accountable for his role in its creation.

There is a final matter about McCain, the new and reinvented McCain, that the press hasn’t quite taken in. The McCain of 1999 and 2000 was running a campaign that was also a movement. His most famous quote from those days, which he used repeatedly, invoked the idea of public service and usually went something like this, from a convocation speech at Boston College in 2006:

Those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it, live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. But sacrifice for a cause greater than your self-interest, and you invest your lives with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.

This belief was at the core of his earlier campaign. Welch, an editorial-page editor at the Los Angeles Times of libertarian bent and a former editor at Reason magazine, devotes considerable space to exploring this aspect of McCain’s professed values. His book is the best of the three. The other two, though useful, would have little rationale if McCain weren’t a presidential candidate; but Welch has produced a thorough critique that digs deep into McCain’s belief system and will have a shelf life beyond this election cycle.

As a libertarian, Welch finds the above quotation about “sacrifice” monstrous, a prettily packaged recipe for putting the people before the individual and trampling liberty. But it was something that I think many journalists and liberals and especially young people found appealing. David Foster Wallace certainly loved it, and he points out in his essay that the idea was part-and-parcel of the whole McCain package—the straight talk and the POW years conferred upon McCain a legitimacy to demand sacrifice of citizens, and his credentials made the call real and not “just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become” president.

McCain’s Web site features a section called “A Cause Greater,” with links to volunteer organizations and such, and he still uses the phrase at times. But he’s certainly cooled down the inspirational rhetoric aimed particularly at young people (I was struck reading both Welch and Wallace at how much of what they said about the vintage 2000 McCain has been said this time around about Obama). McCain’s favorite literary character is Hemingway’s romantic adventurer Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls. His film hero is Brando’s Emiliano Zapata, who walked out into the village plaza alone to meet certain death. McCain says he believes in the “beautiful fatalism” of noble lost causes, and he confounded reporters in 2000 by exhibiting apprehension after his New Hampshire win and relief after his South Carolina defeat. Such responses captivated many people. That McCain is probably still in there somewhere, if you dig deep enough. But the McCain we see publicly now is determined to do anything he has to do to win.

It’s probably unlikely that the larger national press will arrive at this interpretation by November. The image of the straight-talking maverick who bled in a cell while Baby Boomers indulged themselves is just too hard-wired into their systems. In addition, McCain, still adept at the seduction of journalists and the self-deprecating witticism, hides his rank ambition better than, say, Hillary Clinton does.

Nevertheless, he has equally evident weaknesses. He is saddled with an unpopular incumbent whom he will nevertheless have to embrace because he’ll need every vote he can squeeze out of the 29 percent who still like Bush. The recent Republican losses in special House elections in strong GOP districts in Illinois and Louisiana suggest a badly damaged brand, and McCain has not so far proven himself the kind of leader who can fundamentally redefine his party. Finally, his age might matter. If elected, he will turn seventy-three seven months into his first term. A senior moment or two—further confusing Sunni and Shia, which he’s done twice now—would come in handy for his opponent.

But for the most part, the Democrats will have to defeat McCain on substance. They will begin with Iraq. McCain was much criticized for a previous statement that a hundred-year US presence in the country would “be fine with me”; so in a May 15 speech he bowed to political reality. He said that “among the conditions I intend to achieve” would be victory in Iraq, and withdrawal of “most of the service men and women,” by 2013. But he presented no analytic vision of how he would accomplish that, and trying to distance himself from Bush’s war policy after all this time may anger the neocons in his base more than it placates moderate voters.

His rhetoric about Iran—which inevitably will be a factor in any solution—has been belligerent. He calls it a “rogue state” and has spoken often of “rogue-state rollback,” deliberately invoking a word favored by the hardest-line cold warriors; he recently said he never meant by the phrase “that we should go around and declare war.” On the Middle East, he said in late April that “people should understand that I will be Hamas’s worst nightmare.”

On health care, McCain’s plan is built around tax credits ($5,000 for families) that would cover less than half the cost of today’s average family plan and lead to high deductibles and much greater risk. His economic policies would, if enacted, combine Bush’s tax cuts with far more severe spending cuts in a way that could ultimately destabilize Social Security and Medicare, a goal fiscal conservatives have sought for decades; and he recently announced that he would nominate Supreme Court judges like John Roberts and Samuel Alito. So there’s plenty for the opposition to work with. Whether these matters will carry more weight than lapel pins or pastors or the ghosts of Hanoi may well be the question of this year’s campaign.

May 15, 2008

  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.

  3. 3

    Since their book’s recent publication, Brock and Waldman have added a new chapter on press coverage of McCain, which is available at mediamattersaction.org/freeride/addendum.

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