Shocking, shocking, it's like the crazyaunt in the base-ment," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), when asked in his Senate office about a quote he gave to The Washington Post claiming he had a "streak of libertarianism." "I think I do, I think the people of Arizona do, and I think my predecessor Barry Goldwater did."
If you define a libertarian as a rebel, John McCain is Washington's perfect example. He is well known for doing what he wants and saying what he thinks--a "maverick," if his press is to be believed. In his younger days, this meant pushing any institutional rules by which he found himself bound: at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and later as a Navy aviator. He enjoyed a good party, fast cars, and fast women. He liked to tell a "good" joke, and still does. (In June, he broke the "Chelsea rule" at a Republican Party fund-raiser. The reason Chelsea Clinton is ugly, according to McCain, is because Janet Reno is her father.) He also savored a good smoke--a real Marlboro man.
But this wild streak isn't what the senator has in mind when he calls himself something of a libertarian. He's out to convince REASON that he shares an affinity for free minds and free markets: "I'm fundamentally a deregulator, a free-trader, a free-enterpriser," says McCain, as he begins to rattle off a list of libertarian bona fides. "Most of my efforts have been to reduce the size of government. I spend weeks every year trying to turn back pork-barrel projects. I fought 10 years for the line-item veto. I believe in smaller government, the best government is local government....Any objective observer who looks at my 16-year record would view it as fundamentally and to some degree libertarian, if you describe `libertarian' as minimal role of government in society."
McCain boasts a lifetime American Conservative Union voting record of 86 percent, although it tellingly dropped to 68 percent in 1998. In 1997, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business scored him at 100 percent. He earned a 5 percent approval rating from the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union gives him a lifetime rating of 16 percent. The American Civil Liberties Union scored his 1997-98 votes at 14 percent, while the Christian Coalition gave him 73 percent--which is where we start to see his libertarianism crack.
"He votes very conservative," says longtime friend Orson Swindle, currently a lonely voice for less regulation on the Federal Trade Commission. Yet McCain's recent fame--the reason this magazine, and much of the national press, is interested in him--comes from two initiatives fundamentally at odds with the principles of libertarianism or, for that matter, a conservatism that is skeptical of federal power. In the past year, McCain has devoted his considerable energy and media presence to pushing for dramatic restrictions on campaign contributions and spending and for draconian new regulations and taxes on tobacco.
The tobacco deal, and perhaps for some, campaign finance, is not in keeping with my [conservative and libertarian voting record]," McCain admits, in a bit of an understatement. The question is what this high-profile apostasy says about a man who clearly wants to be president. Is he, as The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson writes, "a thoroughly conventional politician--vague, hesitant, risk adverse" or, as Slate's David Plotz calls him, "opportunistic," a "calculating populist who has built his career on sexy, attention-getting issues"?
McCain doesn't see himself as either. Asked what he wants people to think when they hear his name, he says "principled" without hesitation. Press accounts are salted with quotes from McCain and his admirers about how he "does what's right."
"I think the principles [McCain refers to] would be honesty," says Sydney Hoff Hay, an Arizona political consultant who has worked with and observed McCain since the 1980s. "He's someone that says what he thinks and tells the truth." Swindle, who's been a McCain buddy since they met as Vietnam POWs in 1970, characterizes McCain as "a very principled person."
But how does a man of proclaimed "principle"--a proclamation bolstered by those who know him best and by a 16-year voting record--go so wrong on such consequential issues? Skeptics heap scorn on the notion that McCain has any principles. "His principle is that he should codify any prejudice he happens to have," scoffs Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute.
McCain's friends, foes, and biography suggest a more complicated, but no less politically worrisome, explanation. For John McCain, principle is fundamentally about honor--personal honor: about keeping his word, about doing what is right and doing it well. "Principle" combines honesty, stubbornness, and loyalty. This notion of principle is very different from adhering to a consistent political philosophy. It explains McCain's popular appeal, especially in contrast to the exceptionally dishonorable Clinton administration, but also accounts for the distrust, even contempt, he inspires among the ideologically committed.
"John does what he believes but doesn't have that kind of well-thought-out philosophy," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who generally speaks highly of McCain but opposes his recent attacks on the tobacco industry and free speech. "He is a guy who does do what he thinks [is right]. The problem is what he thinks [is right] is neither consistent nor always that helpful to himself or his party."
McCain's view of principle grows out of an aristocratic code of virtues, which in turn informs the ethics of the military, the institution within which McCain was born, raised, and spent much of his life working. The heart of the aristocratic code of ethics, according to University of Tulsa historian Paul A. Rahe, is that one doesn't let people down. Obligations, in this view, are not owed to abstract systems of belief. They are specific, personal, owed to individuals or institutions: one's troops, the Senate, one's country. By this definition of principle, McCain's story shows him to be quite principled indeed.
John Sidney McCain III was born into a life of service, the grandson of a Navy admiral and the son of an admiral-to-be. "My father never asked me once, `Do you want to go to the Naval Academy?'" recalls McCain. "It was always, `He's going to the academy.'"
McCain went, but not graciously. "I chafed at discipline my whole life," he admits. At Episcopal High School in Alexandria, he fashioned himself a rebel. A cigarette dangles from McCain's mouth in a yearbook photo, and his senior-year classmates voted him runner-up in the category of "Thinks he is" the "Hardest." According to Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song (1995), which chronicles the lives of five Annapolis graduates who served in Vietnam, McCain was known as "Punk," "Nasty," and "McNasty."
At the Naval Academy, writes Timberg, McCain was the "unofficial trail boss for a lusty band of carousers and party-goers known as the Bad Bunch." McCain, who had an ability to successfully cram for tests, had little use for tedious academic study. Nor did he accept the strict rules that governed the academy. "At the end of his four years, he figured he had marched `to Baltimore and back seven times' on disciplinary detail," wrote New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple in a 1967 front-page report on McCain's downing over Vietnam. "His hair was seldom trimmed and he often wore a rumpled khaki shirt." In 1958, he graduated 894th in the academy's 900-man class. While still in the academy, he enjoyed a high-profile fling with one of Brazil's leading models.