The media’s moment of disillusionment with John McCain appears to be at hand. Even Joe Klein has finally noticed that McCain’s profile is beginning to resemble the endomorphic shadow of his backstage advisor, Karl Rove, not one of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.
It’s all very predictable – about as predictable as the media’s abrupt discovery in the summer of 2005, as New Orleans sank beneath the waves, that the president of the United States was, gasp!, an incompetent boob.
But anyone who’s studied McCain’s career with any intellectual detachment at all (as opposed to the hagiographic tendencies of his media cheerleading claque) could have told you: The truth about John McCain is that he'll do just about anything and say just about anything to win. He always has. He's just been more clever (and cynical) than most in how he goes about it.
McCain’s primary talent has always been his ability persuade simple-minded people (i.e. his media cheerleading claque) that he is flipping or flopping as a matter of great personal principle and at great possible cost to his political career – even as he has used his various flips and flops to climb the greased pole and become the presidential nominee of his party.
I’ll leave out McCain’s early career as a professional ex-POW and passionate enemy of Vietnamese Communism (to be replaced, later, by a noble, magnanimous belief in reconciliation -- at about the same time the GOP business lobby decided that diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam would actually be really cool.) I’ll also leave out McCain’s financially expedient (and therefore politically expedient) divorce and remarriage to a wealthy beer heiress. No one knows the human heart, etc. I wasn’t following politics in those days anyway.
But I was around, and following congressional politics rather closely (by which I mean professionally) when McCain first popped up on the political radar screen in 1986 during the so-called Keating Five scandal. In exchange for various regulatory favors, Keating, a wealthy and politically, um, generous, S&L executive, turned himself into the special friend of a bipartisan group of sleazebag Senators, with five in particular, including McCain, reaping most of the benefits. By modern standards (i.e. Jack Abramoff’s and Ted Steven’s standards) it was actually pretty tame stuff, but it was considered a big deal at the time.)
In a sense, the scandal marked the birth of the McCain "brand," because unlike the other four of the Five, he stood up in the Senate and more or less admitted he was guilty (not nearly as guilty as the others, he hastened to point out – but still, he felt bad about what he had done.) This went over really big with the media ("Senator admits guilt" outranking even man bites dog on the news-o-meter.)
Now, if you go back and look, you’ll see that if Keating didn’t comp McCain as generously and vigorously as he did the other four, it was probably because McCain was a very junior senator at the time, with relatively little influence to peddle. But it wasn’t because Honest John was shy about accepting the favors that were offered him. If John McCain had a problem with the way lobbying (i.e. legalized prostitution) was being done in Washington, you definitely won’t find it in the record of the Keating investigation. McCain’s fit of Puritan self-righteousness (or political calculation, depending on your view) came after the fact, once he’d already been caught. And yet, from that single Senate speech sprang the shoot that eventually grew into the sturdy tree of John McCain’s media image.
You have to admit it was a neat trick: Happily accepting the naughty goodies while they were being handed out, but then winning brownie points for admitting he took them – after the world had already found out he took them. But that’s precisely what McCain did. He’s never looked back since.
The lesson he learned, I think, is that pseudo-candor (truthiness) usually trumps the genuine article (McCain was way ahead of his time on this) And so he hasn’t hesitated to flip and flop shamelessly if (and these are the key points) it is in his interest and he thinks he can get away with it.
McCain pretty much disappeared from view in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Dems controlled the Senate, the Cold War (his signature issue) was winding down and the Defense budget (his primary source of legislative goodies to dispense) was being cut. The big issues back then were the budget deficit and the economy, and McCain’s never been able to conceal the fact that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about either of them.
The only real publicity I recall McCain getting during that time was over the "issue" (if that’s the right word) of missing POWs in Vietnam. McCain, the POW movement’s former poster boy, suddenly became McCain, Hanoi’s best good buddy on Capitol Hill. The media, which thought the POW activists were a bunch of kooks, gladly gave him an free pass on that particular flip and flop. The activists, who remembered that McCain had been sympathetic, or even a full-fledged supporter, up until about his first Senate race, were much less charitable – the diehards still hate his guts. (That the Obama campaign hasn’t reached out to them the way Rove reached out to the anti-Kerry Swiftboat cranks in 2004 tells you all you need to know about the Democrats’ nice-guys-finish-last syndrome.)
In any case, McCain didn’t register in my political consciousness again until 1999, when he, somewhat improbably, decided to run for president. Everyone in Washington knew the GOP skids had already been greased for Bush (first for Jeb, who flamed out in his first run for governor, and then for Shrub.)McCain’s media bandwagon wasn’t nearly as big and noisy as it later became. In a crowded field -- which also included Dan Quayle, Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander, Liddy Dole, John Kasich, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes (the salt and pepper of American religious nutjobbery)-- McCain didn't exactly stand head and shoulders above the pack.
The rest of the story is more familiar: As the outsider, one of a number of outsiders, running against the GOP establishment favorite, McCain desperately needed – and knew he needed – independents and Democrats to turn out for him in the primaries where they were allowed to do so. But his record and his positions on most issues defined him as a fairly conventional GOP conservative – what’s more, one whose primary passion, national security hawkishness, was way out of fashion. So, McCain and his political advisors used his personal biography (not least his post-Keaton Five contrition) to fashion a new political persona that would appeal to independents and/or moderates: McCain 2.0. To demonstrate his bona fides, he even took a totally gratuitous (if entirely accurate) public shot at the religious right, defining them as "the agents of intolerance."
It worked well initially -- well enough to put the fear into Karl Rove and George W. Bush, not to mention the entire GOP establishment. But conservative, hardcore Republican South Carolina turned into the make-or-break primary state, and McCain’s supposed appeal to veterans turned out to be much less tangible than the Bush machine’s tight connections to the fundamentalist Taliban. So suddenly John McCain, the supposed straight talker, was ducking and weaving around the perennially important issue of whether the Confederate flag should continue to wave over the cradle of the Civil War.
He lost anyway, of course -- but here again, as during the Keating Five scandal, McCain managed to make political vice look like virtue, at least in the media’s eyes. In late April, he gave a speech announcing he’d been wrong not to denounce the Stars and Bars. "I chose to compromise my principles," he confessed, and "broke my promise to always tell the truth" in order to win in South Carolina.
"I do not intend for this apology to help me evade criticism for my failure," the noble McCain nobly added. "I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept all of it, I deserve it."
Once again, the hearts of supposedly hard-hearted reporters melted like butter – not withstanding the obvious fact that McCain had saved his road-to-Damascus moment until after the votes were cast in South Carolina and after Bush had effectively nailed down the nomination. (McCain’s flips and flops on racial issues, such as his forth and back and forth on making MLK’s birthday a federal holiday, are worth a post just in themselves.)
Like Achilles, McCain largely withdrew to his tent for the 2000 general election campaign – sulking after his defeat, it was said; although, in hindsight, hedging his bets might be a more accurate description. But after the Florida debacle, with the Cheney Administration off to a rocky start and Shrub looking like a possible one-term failed nominal president, McCain re-emerged to re-define himself legislatively as a "maverick" Republican -- opposing tax cuts, slamming the tobacco lobby, embracing campaign finance reform, etc.
But then 9/11 reshuffled the political cards once again. With Bush transformed into the GOP's Maximum Leader, McCain reinvented himself AGAIN as a loyal foot soldier in the war on terrorism -- but managed to keep just enough daylight between himself and the Cheney Administration (on the conduct of the war in Iraq, the use of torture, etc.) to give himself an out if thing went South.
In the summer of 2004, when it looked like Bush might actually lose, McCain played footsie under the table with John Kerry, briefly considering a spot on the Democratic ticket. But when he saw what a lousy candidate Kerry was (and how effective the Rovian Swiftboat machine could be) he quickly switched gears and hit the campaign trail with Bush.
In 2005 and early 2006, as things DID go south in a big way for Shrub, McCain stepped up his public criticisms -- but at the same time moved behind the scenes to reassure the GOP party establishment (particularly the religious fundamentalist wing) that he could be team player. He even went down to Lynchburg and kissed the ring of Jerry Falwell (a.k.a. the "agent of intolerance.)
In public and his private media love sessions, McCain spoke out against torture (with the inevitable reference to those POW horrors he doesn’t like to talk about even while he’s talking about them.) Privately, he worked with the Cheney Administration on a compromise that would shift all torture-related program activities to the CIA and absolve everybody involved of any legal culpability. Publicly, he moved to distance himself from his GOP colleagues and their pork barrel ways (grandstanding all the way). But that didn’t stop him from campaigning for some of the worst offenders in the fall, collecting political chits he knew he would need for his second presidential run.
After the congressional elections resulted in a Democratic House and Senate, McCain must have realized that if the Democrats and the Jim Baker wing of the GOP succeeded in liquidating the Iraq fiasco forthwith, his political and foreign policy reputation would be left in shreds. So he backed the "surge" – but again, left himself a later out, if necessary, by publicly questioning whether a gang as incompetent as the Cheney Administration would be able to see it through.
Now, finally, all that hard work and twisting and turning have paid off, and McCain IS the GOP establishment candidate. In April, as Clinton and Obama were tearing into each other (or rather, as she was tearing into him) the McCain campaign clearly saw an advantage in positioning their guy above the fray, as the "kinder, gentler" candidate – the better to pick off supporters of the loser in the Democratic primary race. Thus McCain’s promise to run a "respectful campaign." (He didn’t explain that what he meant was respect for HIM.)
But McCain and his new team of Rovian handlers now realize they won't have a prayer in November unless they can motivate the conservative base and (to use Lee Atwater's charming phrase) "strip the bark" off Obama. And they have to do it NOW, so McCain can pivot back to a softer, more upbeat message in September.
So that's exactly what McCain is doing – instantly, unapologetically, without shame or embarrassment. His enormous cynicism about the political process and his contempt for the voters – not to mention his vast sense of self-entitlement - have led McCain to take exactly the same low road as the Bush family and its various henchmen (Atwater, Rove): Whatever works; whatever it takes.
And so it’s finally dawning, even on some members of his media "base" (ever the hapless clowns in our political theater of the absurd ) that McCain isn’t quite the straight-talking, straight-shooting military man of honor they thought he was. The White Knight has morphed into the Great White Hope – the GOP machine’s last, desperate chance to avoid the mortal humiliation of being defeated not just by a Democrat, not just by a liberal, but by a liberal Democratic black man.
Some of the suckers are even starting to suspect McCain’s been lying about them, too. Despite the cozy chats on the Straight Talk Express, the Arizona barbeque weekends, the cheerfully misogynist jokes and the teary-eyed moments when John tells one of his patented POW stories – despite, even, the donuts with sprinkles – he isn’t actually their friend at all. In fact it’s pretty obvious he despises them almost as much as he despises a system that forces him to pander both to them and to the voters.
Update 6:24 PM ET:
"I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks."