The tragedy of John McCain



It has been quite a week for our most enigmatic celebrities. George Steinbrenner is dead, Roman Polanski is free, and John McCain is laid bare - this time, by New York magazine - as a grumpy old guy still marinating in his own anger. In the quoted words of one veteran McCain strategist, "He's angry at Obama, at former staff, at his family life, at his fellow Americans. He's angry."

Yeah, I know, it's hardly a shock to hear that the GOP's' '08 White House aspirant is indeed what we already knew him to be. But this magazine piece is actually well worth reading, if you fancy taking a break from your beach novels. McCain will be in the news a lot on the eve of his Aug. 24 Senate Republican primary - remember, he's trying to thwart a serious challenge on his right flank from conservative talk-show fulminator J. D. Hayworth - and the New York article is a truly timely look at a poignantly tragic character.

McCain, according to a multitude of sources, has been systematically deconstructing his so-called "maverick" image, and pandering shamelessly to Arizona right-wingers, because he is personally terrified by the prospect of defeat. As the author puts it, "McCain has been gripped by fear of political mortality," and he will engineer as many policy flip flips as necessary in order to stay alive.

He is lit from within by the fires that have burned since his stint as a youthful fighter jock, and he can't imagine another way of living. From the article: "Friends of McCain say that in the recesses of his brain is a mortal fear of retirement. Engaging in daily battles is all he's ever known...He recognizes, says a person who has spoken with him about it, that political life is fleeting, that he could one day be forgotten. It scares him. At this point, losing to J. D. Hayworth would be too much for McCain to bear."

Well, that helps to explain why he has been so willing to deep-six McCain 1.0 (the independent iconoclast) and replace it with McCain 2.0 (the weather vane that blows with the prevailing winds). His flip flops are way too numerous to itemize here. Suffice it to say that the McCain of the late '90s and early '00s - the guy who supported taxing Big Tobacco and funneling the money to children health programs; who opposed waterboarding terror suspects; who supported path-to-citizenship immigration reform and scorned those who stressed border fence security; who was open-minded about gays in the military and Roe v. Wade - has been flushed down the memory hole. If he needs to morph into an angry right-wing crank in order to beat Hayward next month, so be it.

As an old McCain friend tells New York magazine,"There are two John McCains. The one I love is a very big man, and he's willing to take on big issues in a big way. Then there's another side of John, he'll admit, that is petty and angry and small, that side has overtaken the other one."

Actually, I've long thought that the McCain "maverick" image was a bit of a fraud; he was never quite the moderate independent that the Washington press corps deemed him to be. As late as 2005, he was ranked (by as the third most conservative senator in the chamber, and, as I wrote way back in February 2000, he had long demonstrated his fealty to Republican orthodoxy (among other things, by endorsing every item on Newt Gingrich's '94 Contract With America, voting for antiabortion bills more than 80 times, voting against raising the minimum wage, and earning a 14 percent rating from the ACLU). As Arizona political analyst Bruce Merrill told me in 2000, "For most of his career here, he was the darling of the far right."

But he seemed mavericky because he cherry-picked a few marquee issues that got a lot of press - particularly campaign finance reform (a crusade he never talks about anymore). Actually, as the magazine piece points out, McCain didn't exactly map this image strategy all by himself. Quite the contrary, in fact. He became a "maverick" because one of his closest aides thought it was a smart idea to present him as "dignified and honorable."

Indeed, the strongest material in the article deals with the relationship between McCain and his aides. The so-called man of conviction turns out to be a tabula rosa, a blank slate of no fixed convictions - "impulsive, emotional, dependent to a fault on the advice of others." Speechwriter and ghostwriter Mark Salter charted the maverick strategy back when he had the upper hand; today, Salter is basically out of the loop. The guy in charge today is a lobbyist-strategist named Rick Davis; he has long argued for McCain's rightward lurch, and, as a key guy during the'08 campaign, Davis argued in favor of placing Sarah Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency - trumping Salter's objections.

What's noteworthy, however, is that even though McCain has lurched rightward in accordance with Davis' advice in order to survive the Arizona GOP primary, he is no happy warrior. As one adviser tells the magazine, "He doesn't like doing what he's doing." And therein lies the tragedy of McCain. Is it worth staving off political mortality, at such great cost to his own soul?