The Non-Conformist

John McCain
John McCain; drawing by David Levine

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…

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