The Truth and John McCain
McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope
By David Foster Wallace, forward by Jacob Weisberg
Back Bay Books, 2008
Free Ride: John McCain and the Media
By David Brock and Paul Waldman
Anchor Books, 2008
The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don’t Trust Him – And Why Independents Shouldn’t
By Cliff Schecter
McCain: They Myth of a Maverick
By Matt Welsh
Palgrave MacMillan, 2007
You know, this election is about trust, and trusting people’s word…the fact is that I’ll keep my word to the American people, and you can trust me.
–John McCain, 2008
If you watch the news and read the papers, you’d be led to believe that John McCain rose, improbably, like a phoenix out of the ashes to claim the Republican nomination. He finished a dismal fourth place in Iowa, and it seemed like the voters who’d been enamored of him for so long finally rendered a guilty verdict for his support of the Iraq War and the past few years he spent sucking up to the Republican base. Nearly broke and shedding copious amounts of campaign staff, McCain returned to the straight talk of yore and pulled out a daring, even heroic win in New Hampshire. Money started to trickle in again, and he was back in contention, battling through to Super Tuesday to claim the nomination. It’s a shallow reading but a revealing one, since shallowness is par for coverage of the senator from Arizona. The national media’s reporting on John McCain has always been long on drama and short on journalism, a gap he’s skillfully cultivated. That yawning chasm between perception and reality explains why he’s still a Senator, and may yet be President.
Image is also the reason for McCain’s supposedly unfathomable primary victory. First, consider his opponents. He beat out a crop of lightweights headed for certain death in the general election. Giuliani’s social views were anathema to the Republican base, and his campaign stunk of a 9/11-derived entitlement. Talking heads politely hinted at the fact that Mitt Romney was an obvious phony. Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa even had the Weekly Standard, that cobwebbed vault of ideological bankruptcy, mumbling praise, but his was the wrong party for economic populism, and even in America would-be theocrats can only go so far. Ron Paul forgot that nutty, isolationist libertarians have about as much purchase in today’s GOP as socialists do with today’s Democrats. Fred Thompson (contrary to early reports) demonstrated a distinct lack of gravitas and in any case, didn’t seem all that interested in the enterprise. Once the surge began showing signs of success in Iraq, McCain could fall back on his trump card: an air-brushed image honed to the status of conventional wisdom.
The standout quality that McCain’s admirers – even the reluctant ones – will ascribe to him is integrity. Though he’d been a Senator for well over a decade, it was during his failed 2000 bid for the Presidency that he and the word became synonymous. McCain’s record had its fair share of blemishes (as we shall see), but the press, displaying the long-term memory of a housecat and a kind of willful incuriosity, anointed him the savior of American politics, David to a corrupt Washington’s Goliath. And like the feelings many of them display for McCain’s opponent today, they had trouble hiding it.
The roots of those feelings, positively Dostoevskian in their psychodrama, lie in three things. One was McCain’s occasional tendency to buck the party line as a Congressman, most prominently when he sponsored legislation for campaign-finance reform. Another is personal style: reporters admired his ostensible candor and his willingness to accept and even enjoy their company. Sure, politicians had displayed one or both of these characteristics before, but McCain’s biography offered up corroborating evidence that seemed to prove he was the genuine article. His time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam not only certified and laminated the integrity label but also, by dint of his open book policy, assuaged the guilt and sense of inferiority that plagued the mostly liberal journalists who covered him. What right did a bunch of liberal draft-dodgers have to scrutinize a war hero?
On October 26, 1967, after dropping his payload on the Yen Phu power plant in central Hanoi, John McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The high-speed ejection broke both of his arms and his right leg. He splashed down in nearby Truc Bach Lake and nearly drowned. North Vietnamese pulled him out of the water, beat him, stripped him of his clothes and stabbed him in the foot and the abdomen. McCain was transported to Hoa Lo prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he was refused medical care. He suffered repeated interrogations and beatings, but the Vietnamese had a change of heart when they learned that his father was an Admiral in the Navy. They offered him an early release, but the U.S. Code of Conduct states that before a prisoner of war can be released, those captured before him must go first. McCain refused. He remained a prisoner for five and a half years, receiving pitiful medical care, enduring repeated interrogations, torture, unhealed injuries, a bout of dysentery, and a two year stint in solitary confinement. He was finally released on March 14, 1973.
It’s difficult to underestimate the effect this story had on journalists who covered him, most of whom had opposed the Vietnam War. McCain, contrary to expectations, was warm and inviting. Journalists were awed by his story, and he offered them validation. More to the point, his time as a POW seemed to prove that the moral sanctimony of his public words (“serving a cause greater”) and deeds (paltry though they actually were) weren’t political calculation but an actual extension of his character. David Foster Wallace describes the “Vietnam effect” best in his book-length essay, McCain’s Promise.
|In 2000, after McCain’s surprise win in the New Hampshire primaries, Wallace was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the McCain campaign for a week on its bus, the Straight Talk Express. It was printed in truncated form in the magazine, then in full online, and is here reprinted (and renamed) in full again with an excellent forward by Jacob Weisberg. Wallace’s earnest, 50-year-old kid style elsewhere distracts from the point, but here it conveys just how intimidating McCain’s past was, and just how much of an advantage it was for him. About the moment McCain was offered an early release, Wallace says,|
It’s hard even to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how we’d react. None of us can know. But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping messages on the walls to others, rather than violate a code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more than his own self-interest.
For Wallace, when McCain got up on his soapbox and talked about rooting out corruption, restoring faith in government and serving a cause “greater than self-interest,” that moment would loom in the background, tugging at his need to believe that the “maverick” McCain wasn’t a mirage, and making him forget about all the “scary right-wing stuff” he actually said.
The sum effect of all of this – the war story, the record, the aw-shucks candor – was to transform the veteran press corps into a bunch of fawning, callow amateurs. In Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, David Brock and Paul Waldman of the liberal group Media Matters relate an oft-quoted column by conservative Andrew Ferguson:
I never saw Heifetz play the violin, or Hogan hit a five iron, or Pavlova do a pirouette. But I’ve seen John McCain work a reporter.
And I knew I was seeing a master at the peak of his form.
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-know 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.
Many in the press were crestfallen when McCain lost. He seemed be the antithesis of everything they hated about Washington politics. But McCain’s life, and his political career, have been marked not just by personal virtue, heroism, honesty and the occasional maverick impulse, but also hypocrisy, narcissism, opportunism, manipulation, and as Michael Tomasky has pointed out, a series of fortuities. Despite the by-rote image of McCain as an honest, straight-talking regular sort of guy, he is as a man and a politician considerably more complex, and in fact, quite frightening.
McCain’s youth would have chained almost any other politician to obscurity. Matt Welch’s McCain: The Myth of a Maverick goes into more detail than any of the others. Welch is a libertarian, which means that he’s as obsessed with government power as a newborn is with its fingers. He spends much of the book acting as a kind of armchair psychologist; parsing McCain’s words for signs of the next Mussolini. But the approach pays dividends, not only in fleshing out McCain’s view of government but his character as well.
You might be lead to wonder at first how McCain got past high school. “It is startling to contemplate how violent John McCain was well into his 20s,” Welch writes. At every new school (recall that his father was a military man so they moved around) McCain would fight the first kid who provoked him. Most of reprimands he received were for fighting. Fellow alumni remembered him as “a hard rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker,” and as someone who “prided himself on being a tough guy. He was seemingly ready to fight at the drop of a hat. He was easily provoked, ready to be provoked.” The former headmaster at the Naval Academy: “He walked around with his jacket and tie all messed up. The tie would be at half-mast and jacket collar turned up. He’d have this sort of surly look on his face, that ‘Don’t treat on me’ type of expression.” He boozed it up all the time and slept with as many women as he could.
Let’s not adhere to the belief that an aspiring politician should have a rap sheet as white as snow. Compulsive violence aside, McCain’s exploits are rights of passage for males around the world. When we pass puberty, many of us spend large swathes of our time as boorish, priapic tipplers. But that’s not the point. The point is that he was and is held to a different standard, partly because McCain is an excellent politician. Welsh: “It would be an opposition researcher’s dream come true if it weren’t for the fact that McCain cheerfully and preemptively offers up the damning evidence himself.” He devotes a whole five chapters to it in Faith of My Fathers, his memoir. When he was asked whether or not he’d ever smoked marijuana, Bill Clinton – afraid of answering in the affirmative and ever the triangulator – claimed he’d smoked, but didn’t inhale (was he going for “rebellious but levelheaded”?). McCain has no such constraints. Hoping to garner votes in South Carolina during the 2000 election, he supported flying the confederate flag over the state capitol days after he called it a “symbol of racism.” But he later called it an “act of cowardice,” and regretted that he broke his promise “to always tell the truth.” (How many politicians have either the gall or the credibility to make such a claim without incurring peals of laughter?) His admission was hailed as a refreshing act of candor. No one in recent memory has better reaped the benefits of self-flagellation.
John McCain came back from Vietnam and went through nine months of physical therapy. Despite the outsider image he’s carefully sewn onto himself, McCain’s path toward politics is a conventional story of social connections, luck, and even a little nepotism. Upon arrival from Vietnam he was granted a thirteen page space in US News and World Report to write about his experience, a courtesy granted to no other POW and one that launched his national profile. McCain was already considering government service, if not politics. He wrote: “If I have to leave the Navy, I hope to serve the Government in some capacity…I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life – along with a man’s family – is to make some contribution to his country.” Returning prisoners of war were granted their choice of assignments. McCain chose the Naval War College, a prep school for high rank officers on their way to future command. But you had to have a rank of commander or higher to attend, and McCain was a lieutenant commander. He appealed his rejection, by his own account, “all the way to the secretary of the navy, my father’s friend and now my Senate colleague, John Warner, who ordered the navy to grant my request and, by so doing, probably saved my career.”
McCain’s Vietnam experience did not sear a distrust of government into his consciousness. His US News essay, aside from containing some racist generalizations about the Vietnamese (forgivable considering his imprisonment), praised Nixon for his bombing campaign, which is what “finally got a cease-fire agreement.” He couldn’t understand “why people are still criticizing his foreign policy” because “force is what [the Vietnamese] understand.” He also couldn’t fathom why “some people’s favorite game is to refute the ‘domino theory,’” because “the North Vietnamese themselves never tried to refute it.” But McCain (very sadly like most Americans in that war) knew nothing of French colonialism and the duplicity that led America to take up its mantle. To his credit McCain thought he needed to learn more.
What, exactly, he learned from the war is still a mystery. Welsh relates his experience at the Naval War College, where he “set about a nine-month, self-designed course in how America ‘entered and lost’ Vietnam. He read histories of French colonialism; Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, realistic novels like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; and the Pentagon Papers, a damning, 7,000-page top secret Defense Department internal analysis covering in detail the cynicism and dishonesty of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam from 1945-71.” McCain has little to say of the smorgasbord he took in. It merits all of one paragraph his book, Worth the Fighting For: “I had satisfied my curiosity. The experience did not cause me to conclude that the war was wrong, but it did help me understand how wrongly it had been fought and led.” His position today on Iraq is the same.
After the Naval War College, McCain became commander of the Replacement Air Group in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked hard and received “one meritorious citation after another.” He also, according to Welch, “maintained that winning combination of his grandfather’s derring-do and his mother’s ambition-fueled social grace;” qualities that would serve him well in his next post as the Navy’s liaison to Congress. It was this 1977 appointment that netted him the social connections he used to launch a political career.
John McCain had already been making such friends. He was a hit at the soirees Ronald Reagan would throw for returning POWs, where he befriended the soon-to-be President, a connection that (again by his own admission) would later net his wife a job in Reagan’s White House. He made other friends as Navy liaison; Senators who would help him win his first election campaign. McCain was anxious to possess the power on display in Washington so he moved to Arizona with his new wife Cindy in 1981, just as a new seat in the House of Representatives was being created for the state.
McCain planned to run in whatever new district was created, but it turned out to be in far away Tucson. In a fateful stroke of luck, another, more closely situated seat opened up when Rep. John Rhodes announced his retirement. His wife bought a house in that district the very same day. Friends from the Senate hooked him up with local power brokers and flew out to raise money. Among his new financiers was Charles Keating, who raised over $100,000 for the campaign. It was, according to Welsh, “about as much of a grassroots campaign as Hillary Clinton’s first run for Senate.”
But McCain immunized himself from any damage his carpetbagging might do by confessing to it. Here he is right before his 2000 run for the Presidency: “Finding a political base in a community usually takes years of work…I had neither the time nor the patience to follow a ten-year plan for election to Congress. I was in my forties and in a hurry, ambitious for the kind of influence I had seen wielded by the country’s most accomplished politicians.” But at the time, when asked about his ambition by another candidate, he delivered a devastating response, which also happened to be a lie.
Listen, pal. I spend 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 had 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.
He had, in fact, lived in Arlington, Virginia for more than five years as a child, and then four more as Navy liaison.
McCain copped to the same desire for self-aggrandizement during his first run for President. He said: “I didn’t decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president.” Patriotism and political reform were, however, lynchpins of the image he presented to voters and journalists. Welch is incredulous: “McCain’s relentless flagging of his constant, driving ambition goes almost unnoticed in the coverage of his political endeavors, which is particularly odd, considering it’s routinely presented as a semi-warning.” McCain: “I have craved distinction in my life. I have wanted renown and influence for their own sake. That is, of course the great temptation of public life. Few are immune to its appeal. The desire to be somebody has driven many a political career much further than the intention to do something. I have never been able to conquer it permanently, but I have tried.”
McCain’s tenure as a Representative and then as a Senator (he won the seat vacated in 1986 by Barry Goldwater, who didn’t trust him) was at first unremarkable. He had no major legislative accomplishments, though he made a notable vote against Reagan’s deployment of troops to Lebanon. The savings and loan scandals of the late 1980s would be, in another stab of luck and irony, the event that gave the Senator crucial elements of the public relations formula that would make him so popular. McCain was rescued from relative obscurity by his own corruption and proved himself to be a remarkably skilled politician.
Ronald Reagan, as part of his program to deregulate everything, gave savings and loan associations more leeway to invest in commercial real estate. But the market’s invisible hand didn’t prevent these institutions from making wildly speculative investments, and so federal regulators began investigations which intensified when the real estate market crashed at the end of the decade. One of those institutions was Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan. It collapsed in 1989. Seventeen thousand investors lost $190 million and the bailout cost $2.6 billion in taxpayer money. The entire Savings and Loan scandal cost the federal government $125 billion.
There was also an investigation into efforts by McCain and four other Democratic Senators to ease scrutiny on Keating’s activities. The five Senators had met twice with regulators in 1987 to inquire after the length of the investigation into Lincoln, which had been ongoing for two years. Of all the Senators, McCain had the most extensive ties to Keating. Lincoln’s parent company employed more than 2,000 people in Arizona. Like McCain, Keating was a former navy flier. He was McCain’s first major campaign donor ($100,000 for his first House race, as noted above). McCain’s wife and his father-in-law had invested nearly $360,000 in one of Keating’s land developments. Maverick and spouse took at least nine trips at Keating’s expense, three to the financier’s home in the Bahamas. Lucky (again!) for McCain, most of Keating’s donations were for a House race and thus outside the purview of the Senate Ethics Committee.
The straight-talker at first denied any impropriety. Brock and Waldman cite an Arizona Republic article describing McCain’s reaction:
When the story broke, McCain did nothing to help himself. When reporters first called him, he was furious. Caught out in the open, the former fighter pilot let go with a barrage of cover fire. Sen. Hothead came out in all his glory.
“You’re a liar,” McCain snapped Sept. 29 when a Republic reporter asked him about business ties between his wife and Keating. “That’s the spouse’s involvement, you idiot,” McCain said later in the same conversation. “You do understand English, don’t you?” He also belittled the reporters when they asked about his wife’s ties to Keating. “It’s up to you to find that out, kids.”
And then he played the POW card. “Even the Vietnamese didn’t question my ethics,” McCain said.
The last comment was a (typical for McCain) sordid abuse of history. And it makes absolutely no sense. I’m sure the NVA approved of his bombing runs.
But then he changed tack and opened up, and hasn’t stopped since. McCain held a ninety-minute press conference and calmly answered every question. Along with day-and-night access to journalists, he probably helped torpedo the careers of the other Senators under investigation. He offered, in Welsh’s words, “constant access and document-dumps to the press (to the point that his fellow Arizona senator DeConcini became convinced that McCain was a serial and strategic leaker).” Brock and Waldman quote a Boston Globe article that concluded there was “considerable evidence that McCain’s office was the source of leaks to the press that proved to be favorable to McCain and undermined three of the four other senators…According to one former McCain aide, the senator’s media strategy as the scandal unfolded was ‘to create the clear impression he did little wrong, but that others had.’” Clark B. Hall, who led the investigation into the leaks themselves, “said that he had no doubt that McCain was one of the principal leakers. ‘You don’t betray other people to protect yourself, and that’s what he was doing…and he was breaking Senate rules to do it.’” McCain admitted only the appearance of wrongdoing in the Keating scandal, and has never admitted to the leaks. But reporters were warming up to him. He gave them access and he was a hoot to be around.
The John McCain who emerged from the Savings and Loan scandal was a new man, or at least a new politician. He began to champion anti-corruption measures in Congress. Of all the reforms he advocated, the line-item veto (which would allow the President to cut “pork” from legislation) was his only real achievement before he ran for President. And the Supreme Court struck that one down. Campaign finance reform wouldn’t pass until George W. Bush’s first term, and then in deeply neutered form. McCain, who had begun co-sponsoring campaign finance bills with Russ Feingold in 1994, even voted against a Bill Clinton proposal in 1995 nearly identical to one he championed the year before.
The maverick trudged on against the tide. He courageously pushed for a lower price limit on gifts to legislators and, in a daring but sadly unsuccessful move, sought to eliminate parking privileges for Congressmen at Reagan National Airport. Welsh notes – in an insight damning to today’s reporters because it’s hidden in plain sight – that McCain’s reforms were “always more about alleviating popular suspicions and restoring citizens’ faith in their country than actually improving the function of government.” Here’s McCain on campaign finance reform:
My personal experience with scandal…taught me to recognize how much disproportionate campaign giving from…special interests caused the public to question the integrity of officeholders. Questions of honor are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics, and because they incite public distrust, they need to be addressed no less directly than we would address evidence of expressly illegal corruption.
Of course, the whole point was that it was legalized corruption. Again carping on the appearance of wrongdoing, he soliloquizes here on parking lot privileges:
When the people perceive any distinction between their interests and ours – whether that distinction is apparent or real – then we will lose that most precious commodity – the hopefully given, but closely guarded trust of the people who sent us here. Any effort to demonstrate how honored we are to be of the people – no matter how small or symbolic – has real value, and is a useful contribution to the preservation of this institution and the noble idea upon which it rests.
The rest of his career would be a canny effort to capture that “hopefully given” trust, in a campaign of “apparent” sincerity full of “small and symbolic” gestures that would amount to very little, except his skyrocketing popularity.
While making those small gestures, like defending Bill Clinton from draft dodging charges, he began to make some new friends in the late 1990s. McCain’s record on foreign policy had been mixed, voting for this intervention and against that one. In 1998 Marshall Wittmann, a close friend of Weekly Standard founder William Kristol, handed McCain a bunch of essays by David Brooks on “national-greatness conservatism, supplementing it with a little light reading on McCain’s old hero Teddy Roosevelt.” Brooks and Kristol had been complaining of late that “something is missing at conservatism’s core.” In…wait for it…another stroke of luck, something was missing at McCain’s core too: coherent foreign policy. This new conservatism, or neoconservatism as we call it, believed in “moral assertiveness abroad.” It was a philosophy (what has that word come to?) that “does not despise government. How could it? How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” They’d make the rest of the world love it too.
McCain began filling his staff with people from Kristol’s circle. Randy Scheunemann, who drafted the Iraq Liberation Act that Clinton signed into law in 1998, became McCain’s foreign policy advisor. His new legislative aid was Kristol protégé Daniel McKivergan. His chief of staff was Mark Salter, former aid to neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick. Wittmann and Scheunemann helped to draft McCain’s famous “rogue-state rollback” speech, a kind of precursor to Bush’s post-9/11 “axis of evil.” It’s worth remembering that in the 2000 election, the candidate of choice for the neoconservatives was not George Bush, but John McCain. Here is also when John McCain began to use the phrase “cause greater;” a plea in the vein of JFK (all such pleas are a pitiful reminder that you can’t say it any better) to serve their country. It was a “new patriotic challenge: to recall Americans to the faith that has made us the greatest force for good on earth. Let it be the most important of your life’s work to remind all Americans that we are part of a great experiment.” With McCain at the reins, presumably. Anything that damages the credibility of government – august vessel of the great experiment, borne forth on the winds of faith – must be legislated out of existence. Then we’d all be free to exercise the “obligations and privileges of freedom,” another phrase he trotted out endlessly.
President Bush with John McCain in celebration of McCain’s 69th birthday, August 2005
A major run for the Presidency brings with it intense and constant media coverage, if not scrutiny. Reporters go everywhere the candidate goes, and often travel on the campaign’s transportation. Access to the candidate is carefully micromanaged. The exhaustive availability of McCain’s 2000 run was unprecedented; journalists were given hours to sit around with the man and watch him think out loud. Brock and Waldman: “He would barely ever go off the record. He would return their calls promptly. He would just chat, and chat, and chat some more, sometimes for hours. He would treat them like buddies, not measuring his words when they were in the room.” They hit on something crucial: “McCain fundamentally reoriented the relationship between journalist and politician, so that instead of being adversaries, each distrusting the other…McCain and the reporters begin to feel like partners in getting the reporter’s job done.” There were more than a few instances of reporters shushing the candidate when he said something that might damage him.
That infatuation was buttressed by McCain’s biography and occasional aisle crossing. Vietnam was the lens through which many viewed questions of integrity, and the charming informality that characterized his interaction with reporters seemed to confirm it as well. Brock and Waldman quote Mark Halperin and John Harris explaining that “to the extent most reporters are forced to think about policy ideas at all, they favor those who run against the grain of partisanship.” And it helps when McCain earns the occasional ire of other Republicans and yahoos like Ann Coulter by championing campaign finance reform or acknowledging that global warming exists.
McCain deftly played to his advantages. Like other facets of the politician, the open access was only apparent. David Foster Wallace, despite touring with McCain for a week and writing for Rolling Stone, never got an interview. The face-time instead went to the “twelve monkeys,” as the road crew called them; big-shot reporters from the national papers and broadcast news. McCain gives a terrible speech, so he spent much of his time in town hall forums, where he could play to his strength: informal give and take.
He also shamelessly exploited his Vietnam service. He told Esquire in 1999 that “when somebody introduces me like, ‘Here is our great war hero,’ I don’t like it. I want to be known as the guy who’s trying to reform the telecommunications business, who’s trying to see the cable rates deregulated. I mean, Jesus, it can make your skin crawl.” One wonders how he can function, having such an allergic reaction to himself. (Incidentally, McCain takes piles of money from the telecom lobby.) Recall how he used his Vietnam service to bludgeon an opponent in his first race for Congress. And as Brock and Waldman point out, his first advertisement of the 2000 campaign “was a sixty-second spot featuring black-and-white still photographs and footage of McCain as a young fighter pilot. Another ad featured McCain strolling through Arlington National Cemetery” (an ad that flew in the face of Army regulations prohibiting partisan activity in the cemetery). One of his first advertisements of the 2008 campaign was in the same vein. Here’s a devastating paragraph from the authors that puts the subject to rest:
More recently, McCain ended an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press with a passive-aggressive sally: “I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation.” If it sounded familiar, it was because McCain has made the same joke many times before. About watching the Arizona Diamondbacks lose a game to the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, he said, “I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation in Hanoi.” About campaigning in New Hampshire, he told Larry King in 1999, “Some of these places I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation.” When in 1998 he lost a vote on a tobacco control bill and the Supreme Court stuck down the line-item veto he had pushed, he said, “It’s been a wonderful two weeks for me. I haven’t had quite this much fun since I was interrogated in Hanoi.” Asked what it was like to be scrutinized as a potential vice presidential candidate in 1996, he said, “I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation.”
McCain again: “One of the things I’ve never tried to do is exploit my Vietnam service to my country because it would be totally inappropriate to do so.”
McCain also exploited his reputation for straight-talk. He’s so fond of it, in fact, that he christened his campaign bus as a rolling totem in its honor; the Straight Talk Express. Wallace, who got no interview but saw all McCain’s stump speeches, relates this: “He makes sure he concludes every speech and [Town Hall Meeting] with it, so the buses’ press hear it about 100 times this week. He always pauses a second for effect and then says ‘I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.’” Which is itself a lie. It would only get worse in the following years.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another Republican who could survive the last eight years with a realistic shot at the White House. Media love carried McCain through his election loss, a time when most also-rans tend to fade away. The straight-talk generator was endlessly quotable, the go-to-guy for comment on a piece of legislation or a scrap of political news.
McCain’s problems wouldn’t start to crop up for a few years. It started with, of all things, a war. When Iraq began its bloody descent into chaos, McCain was dragged down along with it. The Arizona Senator was an advocate of invasion from the first. One could argue, in light of his ideological awakening in the late 1990s, that he was its first major supporter, and the most important one. George Bush had adopted neoconservatism as his guidepost after 9/11, but McCain had always been a true believer. If McCain has been consistent about one thing over the course of his career (even when he didn’t have a program within which to articulate it), it is his messianic vision of American greatness.
He lent priceless credibility to the case for war, and later to the Bush Administration’s feckless self-defense of its various and deadly failure. McCain told Vanity Fair in 2007 that “it’s just so hard for me to contemplate failure that I can’t make the next step. Do I know it would be a tremendous strain on the army and Marine Corps? Absolutely. But I saw the kind of impact of a broken army, a defeated army and Marine Corps, after Vietnam. And I’d much rather have ‘em take a strain and have some success than be defeated.” This from the same person who assured us in 2002 that “we will win this conflict. We will win it easily.” Or consider this stab of prescience in 2002: “We’re not going to get into house-to-house fighting…We may have to take out buildings, but we’re not going to have a bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies.” Six years later in January of 2008, he said he was “sorry” for those who supported the war believing it would be “some kind of an easy task…maybe they didn’t know what they were voting for.” Here also is a man who could not explain the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
In The Real McCain, Cliff Schecter points out that “since the war in Iraq began, McCain hasn’t stopped supporting it, but he has waffled repeatedly on important issues related to the war.” He supported the surge after saying it didn’t call for enough troops. He said in 2007 that things were getting “markedly and progressively worse” right after he said things were “improving.” He decried torture, but when President Bush issued a signing statement to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 saying that he’d interpret the law in any way he saw fit (in other words, he would torture if he wanted to), McCain was silent. In another bit of straight talking undone by a pile of actual facts, the Charleston Gazette reported in 2006 that “McCain acknowledged that ‘many, many mistakes’ had been made in Iraq” but that he “was not an advocate for a ‘stay the course’ policy in Iraq.” Schecter:
But for quite a while before that, he told us that mostly we needed to stay the course.
On ABC News, October 23, 2004, McCain said “Is Afghanistan perfect, no, we’ve got opium, we’ve got warlords, but by God, it’s a heck of a lot better off than it was. And we can to do the same thing in Iraq, we’ve got to stay the course.”
CBS Early Show, June 29, 2005: “We need some successes. But, also, I am heartened by the fact that 58 percent of the American people, according to a…Washington Post poll, yesterday, say that we’ve got to stay the course.”
The Hill, December 8, 2005: “I think the situation on the ground is going to improve. Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course.”
The war has estranged him from the truth in other ways. In March of 2007 McCain had just returned from a trip to Iraq. In Baghdad “things are better,” he said. Why, he even visited a neighborhood “where you and I could walk today.” He failed to mention the security precautions we would need to take that stroll with him, precautions which Schecter helpfully lists for us: “a bullet-proof vest, an escort of one hundred soldiers, three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships.” There was prep-work too. “Soldiers had to leave their normal routines to sweep the market for bombs, snipers had to be put in place, and commanders had to draw up a plan.”
McCain drew the most criticism for his comment that staying in Iraq for 100 years would be “fine with me.” Democrats have seized on this, while McCain and others have claimed that the comment was taken out of context. They were right in a way, but the context is even more disturbing. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on January 3, 2008, a questioner said that “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.” McCain interrupted:
Maybe a hundred…we’ve been in Japan for sixty years, we’ve been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me…as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. It’s fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day…I understand what’s at stake here…
Questioner: So what I hear is an open-ended commitment?
McCain: I have an open-ended commitment in Asia, I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea, I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia, I have an open-ended commitment in Europe, I have an open-ended commitment everywhere.
Of course he later straight-talked away and then back toward his original position. He backed off the comment and later said that most troops should be out by around 2013. Then he backed off that and said the issue wasn’t the presence of troops but “casualties.” So the “100 years” comment is probably close to the truth.
The last eight years have also provided McCain ample opportunity to clarify his positions on some important issues, what Welch calls “that long awkward suck up to the right.” McCain even made peace with the rotund, menacing Jerry Falwell (who said 9/11 was god’s wrath for America’s tolerance of homosexuals and other deviants), giving a speech at the preacher’s Liberty University. McCain had called Fallwell and his ilk “agents of intolerance” in the past. He now supports making George Bush’s tax cuts permanent, though he used to think they were “immoral.” He went from disliking but allowing for the practical reality of abortion to staunchly opposing it, and he now claims he’d nominate justices in the mold of those Bush has appointed. He has changed his stance on gay marriage in the course of one interview at least twice. Welsh recounts them both, and they’ve got to be painful for his apologists to behold. In 2006 he told Chris Matthews,
“I think that gay marriage should be allowed, if there’s a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that…but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of a union between a man and a woman.” Then, after getting some whispered political advice from campaign strategist John weaver, McCain clarified his position in the middle of answering a totally unrelated question: “Could I just mention one other thing? On the issue of gay marriage, I believe that people want to have private ceremonies, that’s fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal.” The crowd of college students booed.
The same thing happened a month later on This Week with George Stephanopoulos:
Stephanopoulos: You say you believe that marriage should be reserved for between a man –
Stephanopoulos: – and a woman. You voted for an initiative in Arizona that went beyond that and actually denied any government benefits to civil unions or domestic partnerships. Are you against civil unions for gay couples?
McCain: No, I’m not. But the – that initiative I think was misinterpreted. I think that initiative did allow for people to join in legal agreements such as power of attorney and others. I think there was a – I think that there was a difference of opinion on the interpretation of that constitutional amendment in Arizona.
Stephanopoulos: So you’re for civil unions?
McCain: No. I am for ability of two – I do not believe gay marriage should be legal. I do not believe gay marriage should be legal. But I do believe that people ought to be able to enter into contracts, exchange powers of attorney, other ways that people who have relationships can enter into.
The Arizona law said that “the state of Arizona…shall not create or recognize a legal status for unmarried persons that is similar to marriage.”
That “long awkward suck up to the right” would get even more awkward. McCain had yet to demonstrate how quickly his straight-talk could lapse into political cowardice:
Q: Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?
McCain: (Long pause) You’ve stumped me.
Q: I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?
McCain: (Laughs) Are we on the Straight Talk Express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.
Q: But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?
McCain: (Twelve-second pause) Get me [Senator Tom] Coburn’s thing, ask [John] Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.
That was not a joke, in case you were wondering.
All politicians lie. All profess their honesty and integrity. So why does McCain deserve such scrutiny? McCain’s self-presentation is an answer: he claims to be different, and what’s more, many people seem to believe him. Weisberg, in an otherwise perceptive forward to Wallace’s book, said that though McCain had mended fences with the right, he’d done it with “evident insincerity.” Given the entirety of McCain’s career, the question must be asked: About what, exactly, is he sincere? A man who pretends to stratospheric levels of honesty and integrity cannot also be a man so admittedly driven by ambition and its corollary, praise.
But the best answer to that question, and the best reason to pick this man apart is that he’s running to become the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. And he might win. Wallace wondered, in a thread that winds throughout his book, whether you could reconcile McCain the “maverick” with the necessities of politics, and the packaging and marketing of that image. The answer is that you can’t. One will forever corrupt the other.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.