Reading McCain

Posted June 11, 2008 in Feature Story

There’s a quote in Cliff Schecter’s new book The Real McCain in which a ranking senate staffer compares the much-admired man of principle and presumptive Republican presidential candidate to a type of footwear. “Whenever we see anyone wearing their flip-flops, we say, ‘I see you have your McCains on today.’” Straight-talker John McCain? A flip-flopper?


McCain was at it again just last week, flipping—or clouding, depending on how you take it—his view on the legality of warrant-less wiretapping. Weeks earlier, he’d modified another of his positions regarding the current wiretapping debate; that of retroactive immunity for the telecom giants who facilitated an administration policy that is generally accepted as constitutionally illegal. In current political parlance, McCain was against telecom immunity before he was for it. In December, when asked about illegal wiretapping, McCain said, “I don’t think the President has the right to disobey any law.” Last week, one of his top aides said that McCain believes the Constitution gives the President the right to wiretap Americans. Asked about this later in the week, McCain said the laws were “ambiguous” and it was time to move on. 


This kind of muddling isn’t new to the man who the press credits with “straight talk.” In 1999, McCain told a California audience he would not support the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. In 2006, he declared he supported a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all cases. During the 2000 Presidential campaign McCain called certain evangelicals “agents of intolerance.” This campaign season McCain has gone to those same evangelicals on bended knee. McCain, a victim of torture, has been adamantly opposed to it for most of his political life. Yet the Detainee Treatment Act, a bill that carried McCain’s name, contains an obvious loophole that allows just that. McCain voted against the first round of Bush tax cuts, saying he wouldn’t vote to cut taxes for the wealthy “at the expense of middle-class Americans.” Now, even as the deficit swells and the middle class sinks, he’s promised to extend those very tax cuts. Most confusing is his love-hate relationship with George W. Bush. His stand on the issues indicate he’ll make it Bush’s third term if elected, even as his staff claims it would be anything but.


So who is this guy, really?


In an attempt to find out, I recently went to the literature: two books that chronicle McCain’s revolving positions and McCain’s own published work. Everyone agrees on one thing: McCain showed courage, bravery and sacrifice as a Vietnam era Navy pilot held prisoner by the North Vietnamese. The son of a four-star Naval Admiral, he volunteered for combat and was shot down over Hanoi. After a year-and-a-half in captivity, McCain was offered release by his captives when his father became commander of American forces in Vietnam. But, sensing propaganda-worthy favoritism, he refused, allowing one of his fellow American prisoners to be released in his place. McCain ended up spending over five-and-a-half years in captivity.            


But his courage and steadfastness seemed to change once he sought political office. Gone were the principles and resolve. In its place emerged a chameleon, a lizard whose changes are calculated to let him blend in to the prevailing political environment. Somehow the press has come to facilitate these changes, covering them up with claims that McCain is a “straight-talker” and a “maverick,” willing to go against his own party for what he believes in. What exactly those beliefs are has been questioned by conservatives and liberals alike.




John McCain and Barak Obama have at least one thing in common. Both have had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Obama’s Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope were back-to-back hits. McCain’s1999 book Faith Of My Fathers, detailed his military heritage and the events of his imprisonment. It spent nearly six months on the bestseller list and was later made into an A&E television movie.


Book publishing is a traditional rite of passage for presidential candidates. John Kennedy had Profiles In Courage, Richard Nixon had Six Crises, Jimmy Carter had Why Not the Best? The trend has waned in the last eight years, what with the rise of the Internet and the election of a mostly illiterate president. George Bush’s 1999 A Charge To Keep was so shallow and self-absorbed it went by largely unnoticed. 


McCain, in collaboration with long-time advisor Mark Salter, is one of the more prolific writers among presidential aspirants. To his credit, Faith of My Fathers is actually an engaging read once past the family military history and into McCain’s Vietnam years. McCain, looking ahead, followed in 2002 with Worth Fighting For, a largely self-indulgent memoir of his post-Navy years first as a representative and then senator from the state of Arizona. McCain, who was born in Panama and graduated from a Virginia high school, admits in the book that he moved to Arizona to chase a political career and his future wife. He denies his marriage to Arizona beer distribution heiress Cindy Lou Hensley was to further his political ambitions. But it certainly helped. The book leaves out the juicy details into his affair with Hensley which led to his the end of his 14-year first marriage. 


Worth Fighting For looks to establish McCain’s reputation as a maverick (indeed its last chapters are titled “Maverick” and “Straight Talk”), mostly based on his resistance to President Reagan’s disastrous Lebanon policy. It also begins a discussion of qualities shared by great leaders. This theme was picked up in his next book Why Courage Matters: The Way to A Braver Life, a collection of stories of mostly well-known individuals who conquered fear to advance a human agenda (a child’s version of this theme, Character Is Destiny, was released in 2005). The book is an obvious take-off on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles In Courage. While Kennedy limited himself to profiles of his senatorial colleagues, McCain finds inspiration in everyone from Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi to legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Implicit in its reading is that McCain, the former prisoner of war, knows courage when he sees it.


Yet even here, McCain’s lack of conviction is evident. In a chapter on civil rights leader John Lewis, McCain quotes Martin Luther King Jr. The irony here is that in 1983 McCain was one of the few House representatives who voted against establishing a holiday in honor of the slain civil rights leader. The fact that McCain represented one of the most racist states in the West, and that the holiday was politically unpopular among his constituents, weighed heavily on his vote. In a further act of pandering, McCain claimed this year that he regretted that vote. This is hard to swallow coming from a man who writes so much about the courage of conviction.


McCain’s latest book, Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them, seems equally calculated and even less relevant. He divides the book into qualities represented in good decision-making—confidence, humility and inspiration among them. Surprisingly—or not—courage isn’t listed. Again, McCain’s Vietnam experience lends credence to his arguments. Sometimes the stories leave important details unsaid, as in the casual mention of how Chicago real estate magnate Potter Palm bought up a mile of slums along State Street and then persuaded the city to widen the avenue. Just how did he do that? And what happened to those who lost their boardinghouse homes in the process? Wouldn’t a man thought to be independent of outside influence want to know the inside story of Palm’s influence?  


The oversight is just a hint of McCain’s hypocrisy when it comes to political influence. For someone whose reputation is based on standing apart from Washington lobbyists, McCain has employed many of them on his campaign staff. In just the last two months, half-a-dozen lobbyists have been forced to resign his campaign when their connections to such unsavory clients—including the military junta in Myanmar—were exposed. ABC found earlier in the year that McCain had more lobbyists on his campaign staff than any other presidential candidate. McCain spokesman and counsel Charlie Black has made big money lobbying on behalf of a host of dictatorial regimes, not to mention infamous war privateer Blackwater. The New York Times reported in February that McCain’s aides had once warned him away from a female telecommunications lobbyist with whom he was particularly friendly. These kinds of relationships make his flip on the telecommunications bill understandable.


With revelations like these coming every week, you’d think the McCain candidacy might be doomed. Not so fast. In their book Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, David Brock and Paul Waldman detail McCain’s special status with the press, how it came about and what it means for politics as a whole. The book’s cover is graced with a revealing quote from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “The press loves McCain. We’re his base.” That base just may have saved McCain’s 2008 candidacy. With his campaign funds exhausted and staff in disarray last summer, it looked as if McCain had taken a fatal stumble. Predicted to do no better than third in the Iowa caucuses, McCain finished fourth with 13-percent of the vote (the hapless Fred Thompson took third). But the press was there ready to spin. “This is very good news for John McCain,” enthused Tom Brokaw. Fred Barnes, on Fox News, declared “This could not have been conceivably a better result for McCain.” Does that mean that no one could conceive McCain coming in first as a victory?


Brock and Waldman, both members of the anti-liberal bias watchdog Media Matters For America, contend that McCain’s friendly relationship with the press is due to a conscious strategy based on his Vietnam experience, his advocacy for campaign finance reform and his style in dealing with reporters. The mainstream media, they say, sees McCain as the opposite of most candidates. His accessibility, much of it won at barbecues and on “The Straight Talk Express,” has endeared him to many reporters. They see him as the “anti-politician,” authentic and genuine in a world of “manipulative, fundamentally artificial” politicians. Cozy relations with the press is why McCain has largely been given a pass on everything from his involvement in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal to his complete flip on border security. His frequent misstatements about al-Qaeda being trained in Iran and the draw down in Iraq leaving troop strength at pre-surge levels (not even close) have been overlooked. Inflammatory statements from Obama’s former pastor created a firestorm. Outrageous smears against Jews and Catholics by two declared McCain-supporting ministers didn’t generate enough heat to roast marshmallows. Brock and Waldman contrast McCain’s treatment by the press with other presidential candidates and point out that there are reporters who aren’t necessarily enamored of the Arizona senator: those from his adopted home state who have covered him for the length of his political career. Their stories are worth reading.


The best compendium of McCain’s hypocrisy and cynical pandering on the issues is political commentator Schecter’s The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don’t Trust Him—And Why Independents Shouldn’t. Schecter sees three different McCains: the hard-right, Goldwater conservative who ran for office in Arizona, the contrasting moderate maverick who sought the presidency in 2000, and the pandering neo-con influenced reactionary who, in 2008, is trying to have it both ways.


Schecter not only compiles a long list of McCain’s flips on everything from condoms to veterans’ benefits but also pulls the curtain back from one of McCain’s favorite techniques when it comes to tough floor votes: not showing up. We saw a perfect example recently when the Senator, who had already won the Republican delegate race, did not leave the campaign trail to vote on the GI Benefits bill (both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama went to Washington to vote in favor of the measure). The Washington Post reports that, through May, McCain missed 43 straight Senate votes, including the budget bill and the Iraq appropriations bill. His staff argues that his votes wouldn’t have changed the outcomes. But not voting leaves open questions of his commitment to certain issues and conveniently keeps him off the record. Where’s the courage in that?     


All the flip-flopping has left many conservatives and evangelical voters leery, even as McCain has come around to their point of view. Evangelical James C. Dobson, founder of Focus On the Family, issued a statement in February declaring he would not vote for McCain. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media voices heartily attacked McCain during the primaries, even questioning his military service (the rumor that McCain had collaborated with the North Vietnamese savaged his chance of beating George W. Bush in the 2000 North Carolina primary). But these complaints could just be an attempt to manipulate the candidate’s views since he seems so willing to compromise. As one pundit observed, what’s to stop him from flipping on the issues again once elected?


This is a question we should all be asking; left, right and center. The only chance we might get to see the real McCain is if he’s elected president. Is that a chance we want to take?



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