John McCain: the myth, the maverick, the man

From his therapeutic recollections of wartime suffering to his anti-ideological political campaigning, the ascendancy of John McCain reveals much about the state of American politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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All the attention and buzz surrounding Barack Obama in this year’s presidential race can seem somewhat unfair, at times, to John McCain. Obama came almost out of nowhere and appears fresh, not embedded in the traditional ways of Washington. McCain may say he’s a ‘maverick’, and thus a different kind of politician, but set against Obama he seems very much part of the establishment, given his 26 years in the Senate and a previous run for president in 2000.


Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

Obama is described as youthful, dynamic and the voice of a new generation. McCain is 72 years old. If he were to win, he would be the oldest person to enter the Oval Office.

The contrasting images of the two candidates contain a grain of truth, but they also deceive. It is easy to miss what is modern about John McCain. In fact, he is much more an embodiment of today’s political culture than he is a throwback to the past. Like Obama, he too is a man of our times.

From military to therapeutic values

If people know anything about John McCain’s life before he entered politics, they know him as a military man. McCain is a third-generation Navy officer, and is best known for surviving detention and torture as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam between 1967 and 1973. He also is said to uphold traditional military values, such as courage, heroism, discipline, loyalty and sacrifice. Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser says: ‘McCain is a figure from an old-fashioned America that is out of fashion in our most cosmopolitan precincts – the America of Gunsmoke and Gary Cooper, not The Daily Show and George Clooney. For McCain, “Duty, Honour, Country” isn’t patriotic pablum but a credo to live by. And he has worked out a way to apply the credo to politics.’ (1)

McCain has written (actually, co-written with Mark Salter) five memoirs, each directly or indirectly covering his personal history, especially his time in the military, and with an emphasis on the values he learned from that experience. In fact, his military biography has been the foundation of his political career, giving him a distinct persona in Washington that he has used to his advantage. ‘Thanks to my prisoner-of-war experience, I had, as they say in politics, a good story to sell’, McCain writes. (2)

Despite this carefully crafted image, McCain is not a traditional war hero. In the past, soldiers were lauded for achievement on the battlefield. But McCain was not successful in warfare, he survived it. In fact, he was not all that heroic a survivor: he cracked under torture and gave away secrets. He also told the North Vietnamese that his father was an admiral so his life would be spared, although he did later turn down the chance to return home before others (3).

Given that Vietnam was a defeat for the US, publicly upholding war heroes was not really feasible. Instead, in the aftermath of the war, returning POW survivors like McCain were promoted via the media as a way of rehabilitating the military and coping with the so-called Vietnam Syndrome.

Over time, as society has become more risk-averse, military values have even less purchase. As Frank Furedi notes in his book Invitation to Terror: ‘Despite the many Hollywood action-packed movies that celebrate heroism and bravery, there is little cultural valuation for risk-taking military behaviour… The elites of society have distanced themselves from military values and the military, and their participation in this institution has significantly diminished. Even the mainstream of society has become estranged from military values.’ (4) Instead of risk-taking and achievement, society validates victimhood and survival. Consistent with this, honouring McCain’s time as a POW is more the result of today’s celebration of the victim rather than of the traditional hero.

Indeed, what’s most revealing is how McCain talks about his POW experience all the time. He is the opposite of the stoic hero. In his first run for office, when challenged about being a carpetbagger in Arizona during a candidates’ forum, McCain whipped out the POW card: ‘Listen, pal’, he said, ‘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.’ (5) McCain has continued to bring up this experience at almost every opportunity since. During the current campaign, he even used it as a defence for not remembering the number of homes he owns (seven): ‘I spent some years without a kitchen table, without a chair.’ (6)

Matt Welch, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, usefully debunks the conventional wisdom about McCain the war hero in his book, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. Welch’s grasp of the therapeutic themes running through McCain’s books and speeches puts it head and shoulders above other books on McCain.

Welch notes that in all of McCain’s five books, he confesses his weaknesses and by doing so ‘pulls off the neat trick of removing them from the conversation’. McCain’s utterances are ‘positively cluttered with cautionary tales about what happens when he elevates his own self-interest over what’s good for the country’, and ‘this idea that a “cause greater” can trump “selfishness” is the taproot of all of McCain’s politics’. Welch is ‘flabbergasted’ to find that much of McCain’s writing, rather than evincing a return to old-time values such as rugged individualism, follows the more modern 12-step recovery programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous: ‘Those familiar with The Big Book of A.A. will be startled at how often its themes (confession, then testimony) and even vocabulary (narcissism, egotist, etc) crop up in McCain’s own books.’

Welch discovers that McCain replaces the 12-step programme’s vague and individually defined ‘Higher Power’ with the USA. And McCain’s pitch for ‘national greatness’ and what Welch calls ‘a quasi-militaristic imperative of citizenship’ sets off Welch’s libertarian alarm bells: ‘It is hard not to detect in McCain’s belief system something antithetical to, or at least heavily sceptical towards, the rights of individuals.’

Despite his criticisms of narcissism and egotism, when McCain refers to military values and a ‘cause greater’, he often does so in a self-serving way. As Welch writes: ‘By McCain’s standards, US nationalism is the greater cause, and the only way to assure its progress is with him at the helm.’ McCain tends to view the world through the prism of the militaristic concept of ‘honour’, as in honourable and dishonourable individuals. For example, as the financial crisis broke, McCain called for Christopher Cox, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to be sacked, as if the crisis could be reduced to this one individual (who as it happens was not the central player).

McCain’s use of ‘honour’ is also personally convenient. Instead of grappling with an opponent’s ideas, he is apt to condemn the individual as lacking integrity. As Daniel Larison writes: ‘If McCain thinks he is always honourable, resistance to him and his ideas must ultimately be villainous and vicious.’ (7) This self-righteous approach gives his arguments a sharp edge, and he comes across – as he did in the debates with Obama – as disliking his opponents in a personal rather than political way.

McCain the maverick?

Another aspect of McCain’s persona that is in tune with the times is his status as a ‘maverick’. Mavericks in politics have existed for all time, but they are typically on the fringes. Today McCain the maverick has become the ultimate insider, at the top of the Republican ticket.

McCain was first given the ‘maverick’ tag by the media in the mid-1990s as he worked on the issue of campaign-finance reform. He argued that large political contributions corrupted the political process, and as cynicism about government grew, he gained a high profile. McCain adopted other stances that were at odds with the Republican line, and the media loved him for it. At the same time, he learned how to manipulate the media, which he referred to as ‘my base’.

McCain’s independent streak enabled him to build credibility during the Nineties. In particular, he rose in prominence as an ‘authentic’ contrast to President Bill Clinton’s declining fortunes; as Welch puts it, ‘McCain was an authentic hero in an age of inauthentic, draft-dodging Clintonism’. He launched a campaign for the 2000 Republican nomination. The media loved his Straight Talk Express bus: McCain could be found holding court at the back of the bus, speaking in an unguarded fashion. And at the time, his non-Republican orthodox positions on corruption and taxes, among other issues, led many liberals, such as Elizabeth Drew, to write favourably about him (8).

In 2008, McCain is running once again as a ‘maverick’. But this time, liberals aren’t getting on board. They accuse him of backtracking and moving to the right on an array of issues, such as taxes, campaign reform, immigration and torture. Drew is now disillusioned; she writes: ‘In retrospect, the once-hailed McCain efforts… now seem to have been simply manoeuvres.’ (9)

Critics claim that McCain is no longer a bonafide maverick. Today, the typical liberal approach is to argue ‘McCain’s no maverick, he’s a George Bush clone’. Cliff Schecter, in The Real McCain, says: ‘McCain appears to be backing away from campaign-finance reform. And nevertheless the label maverick sticks to him like white on rice.’ (10) Welch also doesn’t believe McCain is a true maverick (the subtitle of his book says it’s a myth). But unlike liberals, Welch says McCain isn’t a maverick because he doesn’t measure up to Welch’s real maverick – Barry Goldwater, the small-government advocate and Republican presidential candidate in 1964.

From different angles, critics are essentially saying that being a maverick is a positive, but they don’t agree with McCain, so he can’t be a maverick. In the case of liberals, they hope that they can simply label him George W Bush II so they can avoid having out arguments. However, McCain is a maverick, but the point is, that’s not a positive. McCain is a maverick in the sense that he thinks and operates independently: despite his moves to disown some of his past positions, he still bucks his party when it comes to climate change and a range of other issues.

The key point is that McCain’s ‘maverick’ stances reflect his almost total lack of guiding ideology. As David Brooks has noted, McCain isn’t sure if he wants to be a Teddy Roosevelt Republican (government is the solution) or a Ronald Reagan Republican (government is the problem) (11). Welch writes: ‘To this day, his books go on for hundreds of pages about politics without ever giving a sense of his own philosophical beliefs about the ideal role of government.’

Devoid of ideology, McCain appears erratic, as he has done on this year’s campaign trail. One day, he is pro-development, the next he is a green. On foreign policy, he can be suggesting a return to the Cold War with Russia or calling for military intervention on humanitarian grounds in Darfur. Even on the same topic he holds differing views simultaneously. McCain gave a speech last spring in which he called for expelling Russia from the Group of Eight economic powers, because he claimed it was not a democracy. Shortly after, he gave another speech that suggested the US work in partnership with Russia on arms control. As a Republican arms control expert asked, ‘Would that happen before or after we kick them out of the G8?’ (12)

If there is a constant in McCain’s politics, it seems to be a concern that the American government lacks legitimacy. In a speech in 1999, McCain said that the country was threatened by ‘pervasive public cynicism’ about the government, which was ‘as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past’. He added: ‘When the people come to believe that government is so dysfunctional or corrupt… basic civil consensus will deteriorate to the point that our culture might fragment beyond recognition.’ (13)

Many of McCain’s ventures since that time, from campaign finance to attacks on pork-barrel spending, have been informed by the aim of restoring faith in government. This problem of legitimacy is a real one, as the public has indeed become cynical about politicians, but McCain’s solution only makes things worse.

McCain claims that all of Washington, Democrat and Republican, are to blame and need to be cleaned up. And he argues that partisanship is the major barrier to action, because the politicians are ‘me first’ not ‘country first’. The irony is that his campaigns against corruption feed off the already existing cynicism, and only further add to mistrust. For instance, by banging on about ‘earmarks’ (that is, federal spending directed for specific projects in the states), especially the more ridiculous pet projects, he makes the problem out to be worse than it is: earmarks represent less than one per cent of federal expenditures. Moreover, as Welch highlights, the campaigns against corruption and pork-barrel spending, such as line-item veto power for the president, inevitably end up giving the executive branch more power in the name of cracking down, at the expense of democratic control.

McCain and the Republican Party

The deep unpopularity of the Bush administration – the president’s job approval ratings are currently hovering around 25 per cent – has led Republicans to lose their bearings. It is only out of such disarray that a maverick and opportunist like McCain could have been nominated the party’s candidate for president. Unclear about its identity and direction, the party could not generate any compelling candidates: the contenders McCain faced – Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Guiliani, among others – had to constitute one of the weakest fields in recent times. Reeling from the Bush years, Republican primary voters ended up plumping for McCain because he appeared to be the farthest removed from Bush. And thus the man who considered leaving the party in 2000 now found himself its standard-bearer.

Around the time he secured the nomination, some wondered if McCain would signal a shift in the party’s political direction. Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker speculated that ‘McCain, if he can tame his right-wing critics… may have a rare opportunity to reinvent what it means to be a Republican.’ (14) And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was struck by how McCain’s road to the top did not require him to include all sections of the party: ‘For the first time since Eisenhower, you have someone who has clearly not accommodated the conservative wing winning the nomination. That is a remarkable achievement.’ (15)

Yet, as it turned out, McCain could not move forward without the social conservatives, and he has not ‘reinvented’ Republicanism. He modified his lines on abortion, immigration and taxes to pander to this constituency. He once called the religious right ‘agents of intolerance’, but now he actively sought out their support. And with his selection of Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential running mate, he activated the base. Prior to the choice of Palin, the campaign was reportedly concerned about the lack of committed people who would pound the pavement at election time; with Palin on the ticket, the foot-soldiers returned and were energised. It wasn’t so much that McCain made a wholesale shift to a ‘right-wing’ message, as some liberals would have it, but that his message became more muddled, combining a wide variety of elements. Rather than erecting a big tent that could accommodate all of the party’s factions and take it in a new direction, McCain has been more of a victim of events, getting pulled this way and that by the different groups within the party.

In fact, rather than trying to pull Republicans together, McCain has effectively run against the party itself. In their acceptance speeches at Republican convention in September, both McCain and Palin hardly mentioned the party; it was all about themselves as ‘maverick’ individuals. McCain also did not mention the current Republican occupant of the White House by name, and ran advertisements claiming that ‘We’re worse off than we were four years ago’. His campaign is against all of Washington, Republicans included, and he brags about taking on people within his own party. The fact that the Republicans would nominate someone who challenges the party itself shows that this party no longer knows what it stands for. Only in such an environment could McCain be the nominee.

If McCain makes a comeback and wins the election, his anti-party campaigning means he won’t have gained the support of a united party to help him govern in office (you wonder how Republicans in congress would find working with him as president after he has disparaged them). If he, as appears more likely at the time of writing, loses, we can expect a party implosion and significant bloodletting. And if the ‘pro-America’, ‘small-town values’ conservatives manage to control the reins afterwards, it is hard to know what will become of the urban and suburban Republicans.

A man of our times

If you run through McCain’s political history, right through to his presidential run today, it is striking how he shares so many characteristics with Obama. Of course, the two are not entirely alike when it comes to policies or personality, but the commonalities in their political methods are remarkable. Both of their campaigns are founded on personal biography, including memoir-writing, and both run as individuals above their parties. Both openly admit – even advertise – personal struggles and foibles, and both are seen as, and promote themselves as, ‘authentic’ figures.

Both have exhibited restlessness throughout their careers, jumping from issue to issue and role to role. Both are non-ideological to the point of arguing against ideology, and both blame partisanship in Washington for the woes of politics. And both have managed their media images and been, for periods at least, media darlings. In identifying these shared approaches, we can see what constitutes the new norms of how ‘politics’ is conducted in America, deployed by politicians of seemingly different stripes.

McCain may be portrayed as an elder statesman with old-fashioned values, such as heroism for his service in Vietnam. But despite this image, his ascendancy to the top of the Republican ticket, his political writings and his campaign operation show that he is as much a man of today’s politics as Obama. Because modern politics is no longer so much about ideologically consistent approaches to addressing issues, but rather personalities and short-term fixes, it is easy to overlook the newer underlying themes common to all politicians. It’s ‘politics’, Joe the Plumber, but not as we’ve known it.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, by Matt Welch, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) The curious mind of John McCain, Washington Post, 1 August 2008

(2) Make-believe maverick, Rolling Stone, 16 October 2008

(3) Make-believe maverick, Rolling Stone, 16 October 2008

(4) p136, Invitation to Terror, Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2007

(5) Make-believe maverick, Rolling Stone, 16 October 2008

(6) From an interview with Katie Couric on CBS News.

(7) McCain’s political style, The American Conservative, 19 September 2008

(8) Citizen McCain, Elizabeth Drew, Simon and Schuster, 2008

(9) How John McCain lost me, Politico, 18 September 2008

(10) The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don’t Trust Him and Why Independents Shouldn’t, Cliff Schecter 2008

(11) The Real McCain, New York Times, 26 February 2008

(12) The curious mind of John McCain, Washington Post, 1 August 2008

(13) Cited in McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, Matt Welch, Palgrave Macmillian, 2008

(14) On the bus, New Yorker, 28 February 2008

(15) Cited in On the bus, New Yorker, 28 February 2008

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