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McCain: The Myth of a Maverick
By Matt Welch
Palgrave/Macmillan
New York: 2007

This book examines the under-examined philosophy and track record of presidential candidate John McCain, teasing out his views on the proper role of government. It’s not a biography or a campaign memoir so much as it is a user’s guide or decoder ring for deciphering a supposedly inscrutable candidate.
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As a former soldier, an independent by temperament and a man who places high value on forming partnerships with his ideological foes, McCain was a natural at couching all of his initiatives in the high rhetoric of above-it-all patriotism. Because journalists are so accustomed to plotting politicians along a single axis from left to right, McCain’s record looked like a mess of zigzagging contradictions, desperate for coherence and interpretation. Searching for "the real McCain" became a favored pastime of wish-casting reporters and analysts from coast to coast.

There's no better book out right now on John McCain than Matt Welch's tour de force that suffered the unfortunate fate of being released this past October when the candidate's likelihood of securing the Republican nomination seemed nil. As a character sketch and rumination on this particular "maverick''s" place in the political imagination, Welch's work is unparalleled. And for those who are unfamiliar with the author's writing--he's a former assistant editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial page and a current editor at Reason--The Myth of a Maverick should serve as a perfect introduction to a must-read writer.

Like Free Ride: John McCain and the Media (reviewed here), Welch looks deeply at the cozy relationship McCain has built up over the years with the reporters who cover him; he goes beyond the documentation--in which Brock and Waldman excel in Free Ride--and tries to tease out the personality and belief system of McCain in order to explain the foundation of the media love affair. The result is an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking read, full of Welch's wry humor and basic political smarts.

Two major propositions emerge from Welch's work. The first irevolves around how the Arizona senator has managed to use the device of the preemptive confession to disarm his would-be interlocutors--the press--and turn them into his infamous "base." The author pores over McCain's interviews and, most importantly, his voluminous autobiographies and tracts co-authored with long-time aide Mark Salter, and finds a pattern very similar to the 12-step program used in Alcoholics Anonymous and its spin-off groups. And this willingness, even eagerness, to openly admit and condemn himself about his flaws--his temper, his impetuousness, even his own personal ambition--is part of the strange dynamic that makes reporters feel so protective of his reputation when they're on that Straight Talk Express. Welch quotes more than one journalist who not only did not report on some of McCain's "confessions," but felt the urge to tell their subject to clam up.

Whether McCain's self-incriminations are conscious manipulations or not (after reading Welch, it's tempting to say sometimes yes, sometimes no), there's no arguing with the result: a press that sees him as interesting, unique and--for what it's worth--"human" and therefore likable. This underlying sympathy and admiration comes across in a majority of reporting on the candidate, and it's helped propel his career to heights that are not easy to predict based on his fairly meager record on the issues for which he's gained fame--bucking the status quo, clean politics and bipartisanship.

More important than McCain's style in his advancement though, is the heart of what he's promulgating, at least to Welch. Unlike the authors of Free Ride, who argued that McCain is a true old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool conservative hiding in moderate clothing, Welch (who leans libertarian), sees very little conservatism in McCain at all. What he sees is neither conservative nor necessarily liberal, and is far more alarming than anything that can be measured on the traditional left-right political axis:

But the answer to his ideology was hiding in plain sight: The proper role of the federal government is to act as a beacon of faith for Americans and the world. Therefore, the state must be cleansed, then used as a tool to fix cynicism-breeding societal flaws, after which citizens will be inspired to serve, and the U.S. can go on robustly leading the world. "National greatness," he wrote in Worth the Fighting For, is "the proper object of every American’s citizenship."

The national greatness devotion, and McCain's certainty about the heroic cause of spreading America's ideals everywhere and anywhere all at once--nearly always with the help of a super-military on steroids--is certainly alarming. But to Welch, who has closely read McCain's works, of far more concern is the senator's periodic exhortations to America's citizens (often disturbingly broadcast in college commencement speeches) to subsume themselves in their country. There is a common thread running underneath much of what McCain supports that is often mistaken as "liberal," particularly by conservatives, but which is not. It is a distant cousin of proverbial nanny statism, but is far more dangerous because it postulates that the government knows best, always, and that the individual citizen's duty is to put country first, working toward a "common destiny." At one point, Welch notes McCain's approving citation of Theodore Roosevelt's admonition, "Our freedom and our industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury," and observes:

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the definition of authoritarianism. National politicians (let alone presidents) deciding whether private transactions are sufficiently oriented toward a "common destiny" is the kind of thing found in collectivist or totalitarian countries, not the nation that made "the pursuit of happiness" a foundational aspiration. To throw around a word like "must" after "our freedom"  is to claim a unique authority, backed by the power of the federal government, to judge how best a private individual can conduct his or her own legal affairs.

Far more problematic than his age or his flip-flops or his pandering is this streak of advocating unquestioned allegiance to the state, a fetishization of patriotism, above all else. Welch's examination of this phenomenon in McCain's ideology is important and thought-provoking, and should be considered deeply by voters as we move closer to the November election.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 06:34 PM PDT.

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