Be Afraid of President McCain

The frightening mind of an authoritarian maverick

The John McCain presidency effectively began on January 10, 2007, when George W. Bush announced the deployment of five more combat brigades to Iraq. This escalation of an unpopular war ran counter to the advice of Bush’s senior military leadership, ignored the recommendations made by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and sidestepped the objections of the Iraqi government it was ostensibly intended to assist. But the plan was nearly identical to what the Republican senior senator from Arizona, nearly alone among his Capitol Hill colleagues, had been advocating for months: boost troop levels by at least 20,000, give coalition forces the authority to impose security in every corner of Baghdad, and increase the size of America’s overburdened standing military by around 100,000 during the next five years.

By enthusiastically endorsing McCain’s approach, the lame duck president all but finished the job of anointing the senator his political successor. McCain had already spent the previous three years lining up Bush’s campaign team, making nice with the social conservatives he railed against in the 2000 primaries, and positioning himself as the most hawkish of all the nomination-chasing Republican hawks. For the purposes of the 2008 campaign, Bush’s surge announcement was almost the perfect gift: McCain got to solidify his case with primary voters even while giving himself operational deniability. (“We’ve made many, many mistakes since 2003, and these will not be easily reversed,” he said on January 11, while reiterating his call for even more troops.) The sheer unpopularity of Bush’s move did knock the previously front-running McCain a notch or two behind Rudy Giuliani in the polls. (Both men have consistently finished ahead of Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in head-to-head competition.) But it also allowed McCain to recapture some of his lost reputation as a straight-talking independent. “I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war,” he said with a grin on Larry King Live right after Bush’s speech. The press, which had been souring on the candidate during his noisy lurch to the right, breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Defiant McCain back as maverick,” declared the Chicago Tribune.

The significance of the McCain Plan transcended horse-race politics. It was a microcosm of the Arizona senator’s largely unexamined philosophy about the proper role of the U.S. government. Like almost every past McCain crusade, from fining Big Tobacco to drug-testing athletes to restricting political speech in the name of campaign finance reform, the surge involved an increase in the power of the federal government, particularly in the executive branch. Like many of his reform measures—identifying weapons pork, eliminating congressional airport perks, even banning torture—the escalation had as much to do with appearances (in this case, the appearance of continuing to project U.S. military strength rather than accept “defeat”) as it did with reality. And like the reputation-making actions of his heroes, including his father, his grandfather, and his political idol Teddy Roosevelt, the new Iraq strategy required yet another expansion of American military power to address what is, at least in part, a nonmilitary problem.

McCain’s dazzling résumé—war hero, campaign finance Quixote, chauffeur of the Straight Talk Express, reassuring National Uncle—tends to distract people from his philosophy of government, and his chumminess with national journalists doesn’t help. There is a more useful key to decode how he might behave as president. McCain’s singular goal in public life is to restore citizens’ faith in their government, to give us the same object of belief—national greatness—that helped save his life after he gave up hope as a POW in Vietnam.

Although Bill Kristol and David Brooks coined the phrase “national-greatness conservatism” in a 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, the sentiments they expressed and the movement forefathers they chose would have been right at home in one of the Chamber of Commerce speeches about the virtues of patriotism that McCain gave in the 1970s. Kristol and Brooks wrote that “wishing to be left alone isn’t a governing doctrine” and “what’s missing from today’s American conservatism is America.” McCain, then an ambitious pol-to-be working the rubber chicken circuit as a famous ex-POW, would deliver inspiring sermonettes about the value of public service and restoring America as an international beacon. All three men would eventually come together on such National Greatness projects as the “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East, trying to drive money out of politics, and, not least or last, getting John McCain elected president.

Like Kristol and Brooks, McCain regards Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as political idols; like them, he never hesitates in asserting that government power should be used to rekindle American (and Republican) pride in government. Unlike most neoconservative intellectuals, however, McCain is intimately familiar with the bluntest edge of state-sponsored force. A McCain presidency would put legislative flesh on David Brooks’ fuzzy pre-9/11 notions of “grand aspiration,” deploying a virtuous federal bureaucracy to purify unclean private transactions from the boardroom to the bedroom. And it would prosecute the nation’s post-9/11 wars with a militaristic zeal this country hasn’t seen in generations.

Military Son

To say John McCain comes from a military family is a little like pointing out that Prince Charles is a scion of the upper class. Born in 1936, McCain is the Navy captain son of a four-star admiral who was the son of another four-star admiral, all named John Sidney McCain. And that just scratches the surface.

John McCain and his ancestors have served in every major U.S. war from the Revolution to Vietnam, and the line won’t stop there: 20-year-old John Sidney McCain IV (you can call him Jack) is learning the family trade at the Naval Academy, and 18-year-old Jimmy is in the Marines, waiting to deploy to Iraq. McCain’s father headed up the military’s Pacific command from 1968 to 1972, convincing President Nixon to illegally attack Cambodia and famously ordering the bombing of Hanoi even though he knew his son was still imprisoned there. He also led the controversial 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, which he defended by saying, “People may not love you for being strong when you have to be, but they respect you for it and learn to behave themselves when you are.” He warned early and often that Soviet naval power would soon eclipse America’s, and he palled around with the likes of the Indonesian dictator Haji Mohammad Suharto. His favorite book was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, and his favorite poem was Oscar Wilde’s “Ave Imperatrix,” which he doubtless read as an unironic meditation on the righteous use of imperial power: “England! what shall men say of thee,/Before whose feet the worlds divide?/The earth, a brittle globe of glass,/Lies in the hollow of thy hand.”

McCain’s grandfather commanded all naval air power during World War II and started a three-generation tradition of schmoozing in Washington by heading the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics, where he ordered up weapons systems. McCain’s major-general granduncle was the father of the modern military draft. And his paternal great-grandmother’s side of the family, he says, has an even stronger military tradition, including a militia captain on George Washington’s Revolutionary War staff, an Army captain in the War of 1812, even royalist brawlers in England’s mid-17th-century Civil War.

The McCain men switched from Army to Navy right when Teddy Roosevelt dramatically expanded the country’s naval force—the “big stick” he waved whenever a rival colonial power got uppity in the Americas or the Pacific. McCain’s grandfather was on the flagship of the famous Great White Fleet when it finished its demonstrative 14-month world tour in 1908. “For the McCains of the United States Navy, as well as for many of our brother officers, presidents just didn’t get much better than Teddy Roosevelt,” McCain wrote in his 2002 book Worth the Fighting For. “He transformed the American navy from a small coastal defense force to an instrument for the global projection of power.”

The senator, his father, and his grandfather all took as a given that the U.S. Navy should control the world’s shipping lanes, guarantee the political stability of far-flung continents, and use overwhelming force at the hint of a threat to national interests. When John Sidney McCain III was growing up, every male around the dinner table could cite the exploits of British Admiral Lord Nelson, recite verse from Rudyard Kipling, and sing ribald songs about drunken misbehavior in ports of call. It’s the character trait reflected by that last fact, more than any highfalutin’ stirrings of National Greatness, that initially gave young John the fighting will to survive five years of brutal captivity during the Vietnam War.

John McCains I, II, and III shared more than just a name and profession. Each was short for a sailor, quick to violent temper (especially when accused of dishonesty or of benefiting from privilege), and lousy in the classroom. (The future senator graduated 894th out of a Naval Academy class of 899, but that was only marginally worse than his father, who was 423rd out of 441.) One reason for the poor academic performance was that each McCain was a five-star binge drinker and carouser. Grandpa “smoked, swore, drank, and gambled at every opportunity he had,” Sen. McCain wrote in his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers. Dad, while more discreet, was an out-and-out alcoholic. John spent his teens and 20s constantly flirting with disciplinary disaster by breaking every drinking and curfew rule on the books, concentrating more on Brazilian heiresses and Florida strippers than on his aviating skills. This wide streak of good-time rebelliousness—and his unusual frankness in discussing it—is one of many endearing things about the senator, along with his active and self-deprecating sense of humor, his still-salty tongue, and his convincing passion when confronting some types of injustice and government waste.

Any young McCain worth his salt could convert a grudge into motivational sustenance and torment his tormentors with defiant lip. So after being shot out of the sky during a risky raid over Hanoi in 1967, then pummeled by a mob of local Vietnamese and detained at the notorious prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, McCain comported himself heroically despite two broken arms, a mangled knee, and innards wracked by dysentery and other maladies. Every morning for two years a guard the prisoners called The Prick would demand that McCain bow to him. Every morning McCain would refuse, then brace for his beating. Herded into a made-for-propaganda Christmas Eve service in the prison yard, McCain punctured the enforced silence with repeated shouts of “Fuck you!” while raising his middle finger to the camera. Beat senseless for days on end for refusing to divulge information or accept early release (which would have given the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory and violated the Navy’s honor code), he would reveal only the names of every player he could remember from the Green Bay Packers. “Resisting, being uncooperative and a general pain in the ass,” he wrote, “proved, as it had in the past, to be a morale booster for me.”

But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from finally cracking. After two weeks of particularly severe beatings in 1968, he recorded a forced confession—though not before half-heartedly attempting suicide—and then plunged into inconsolable, shame-wracked despair. “They were the worst two weeks of my life,” he recalled. What pulled him back from the brink was not the stubborn individuality that had sustained him through the years but the selfless encouragement of his fellow prisoners, who told him he did the best he could even while giving him strength to do better next time. “I discovered in prison that faith in myself alone, separate from other, more important allegiances, was ultimately no match for the cruelty that human beings could devise,” he wrote. “It is, perhaps, the most important lesson I have ever learned.”

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • PapayaSF||

    Wow, how did the spammers figure out how to get spam links into the timestamps? And Arabic spam, too. The Syrian Electronic Army strikes again!

  • William of Purple||

    If you convert your handle to Arabic script it messes up the timestamp.

  • PapayaSF||

    Ah, I see, the handle then becomes the timestamp. Strange. Well, something interesting for the server squirrels to deal with on Tuesday.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    you guys are more annoying than I am, lol

  • newshutz||

    I think O has been a disaster, but I still think Mc would have been worse.

    At least the Republicans have slowed O down a little.

    And if you think the PPACA is bad, just think how much worse it would have been with Mc giving active guidance.

  • Hyperion||

    We wouldn't have Obamacare now, but we would be at war with Iran and hard telling what other countries. Also, McCain would sign any bullshit nanny crap that crossed his desk, unless he was playing partisan politics. He's just as much of a statist as Obama is. It's just a different flavor of statism. But we would have only had 4 years of that.

    To tell the truth, I was relieved at first when McCain lost, but that didn't last long until I found out just how bad Obama could be. That still didn't make me wish that McCain had won, it just helped turn me into more of a big L libertarian.

  • PapayaSF||

    A GOP President could not have possibly made health reform any worse. And we wouldn't have Kagan and Sotomayor on the court. And the IRS wouldn't be harassing Tea Party groups.

  • R C Dean||

    And the IRS wouldn't be harassing Tea Party groups.

    Probably not, but I would be willing to bet that McCain, like all establishment Repubs, hates hates hates the Tea Party.

    The only reason that he wouldn't sic the IRS on them is because he's not a bloody-knuckled product of the Daly machine in Chicago, who thinks nothing of using the apparat of the Total State to squash political dissidents.

  • PapayaSF||

    I agree.

  • John||

    And there wouldn't have been a porkulus. McCain was always a spending hawk. And we would not be at war with Iran. The Dems would have controlled congress and never approved it.

    It is funny how people peddle the whole "but we would be at war if McCain had won" line as Obama gets us into war after war.

    Whatever reasons there were to vote for Obama, clearly keeping us out of wars is not one of them.

  • Ted S.||

    When TARP (I think) was voted down in the House, McCain suspended his campaign to arm-twist the House Republicans into voting for it.

    Big Government Republican, and when the going got tough he quit.

  • Gbob||

    I was thinking about this not too long ago. I had preferred Obama over McCain during the election for the fact that a Republican congress could keep the worst aspect of Obama in check while a Democratic congress would merely help indulge McCain in his worst impulses.

    I had underestimated how craven and partisan the press corp had become. I had assumed that the press would find something to draw the line on for an imperial presidency. I had also assumed that there would be enough people on team red with a little bit of backbone as well.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    The killer was that the Dems got 60 votes in the senate. Without that, BOCare never passes.

    We can thank Alaska's and Montana's little temper tantrum at the GOP for that. Judging by 2012, Montana still doesn't seem to have learned its lesson in that regard.

  • Dweebston||

    “I resolved that when I regained my freedom,” he wrote in Faith of My Fathers, “I would seize opportunities to spend what remained of my life in more important pursuits.”

    And then, inexplicably, he cashiered that dream in favor of politics.

    Oh, he meant self-important pursuits. That makes sense.

  • Hyperion||

    Well, I have to say that comments have improved around here, somewhat, after registration.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    In a sense yes in a sense no. Alabaster Native was like the Joker. Registration was necessary to remove her, but it's led to this place becoming way more ideologically homogeneous.

    Few people are going to bother going through the hassle of registration to comment on a site they disagree with.

  • Copernicus||

    I disagree

  • Copernicus||

    I disagree.

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  • DJF||

    “”””campaign finance Quixote””’

    This one is funny. McCain was the darling of the media on campaign finance, but when Obama abandoned the Presidential finance system the media called it a brilliant strategy. McCain was left with only a fraction of the money to spend and the media abandoned all talk about the evils of private money in campaigns.

    McCain was left standing like a rube who was taken by some card sharks.

  • Hyperion||

    In 2008, the main platform of the GOP was NeoCon war boner. At a time when a large percentage of the American public were already starting to lose their own war boners.

    McCain was just the right war monger at that time. It didn't work. So then in 2012 the GOP found another dem lite who wasn't quite as much of a war monger, but who would still go to war with Iran when the time came. It didn't work.

    What will the stupid party do in 2016? They sure as hell will never let Rand Paul get the nomination.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Am I the only one who doesn't like the mental image that the term 'war boner' presents? Particularly when speaking about John McCain? If one has a long-term war boner like McCain, shouldn't you see a doctor - just like is suggested on Viagra commercials?

  • John||

    Good thing we elected such a peaceful President. It wasn't a neocon anything. It is a Wilsonian thing. And the Dems are more Wilsonian than even the Republicans. And that is why Obama keeps getting us into wars.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Rejecting public money after promising to do so and then lying about how he only did it because those evil Republicans were completely funded by corporations and special interests PACs was the first time Obama really showed how he would govern: he'd lie his ass off when convenient and the media would eat it up without question.

  • Dave Krueger||

    The only good thing about the Obama Presidency is that it isn't the McCain Presidency.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Lesser of two evils? Never makes me feel very good when the choices were a turd sandwich and a warm piss mojito.

  • Dave Krueger||

    They are both corrupt self-serving con men. But, McCain is also an enthusiastic warmonger. There are a lot of people alive today who wouldn't be if McCain were president.

  • R C Dean||

    McCain is also an enthusiastic warmonger.

    Unlike our current President, who has repeatedly asserted that he needs no Congressional approval to start a war, and in fact reserves the right to do so even if Congress specifically refuses to approve his war?

  • Virginian||

    Obama is an unenthusiastic warmonger. He really really feels bad about all those dead kids in Pakistan. It just really twists his conscience, in a way that no Republican caveman could understand.

  • ||

    Laws and intentions are magic.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Master Krayewski has taught you well.

  • Dweebston||

    In fairness, McCain is all that + insistent that Obama is weak by deferring to Congress.

  • Dave Krueger||

    McCain would be conducting all the same military operations that Obama is conducting and would be ignoring Congress exactly as Obama is doing. But, on top of all that, McCain would have gotten us into a war with Iran. He was begging for a war with Iran. McCain never met a war he didn't like. He thinks the U.S. looks weak and the only way to change that is to kill more people.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    You're not going to find much love for McCain around here (and certainly none on my part) but that's quite a logical leap.

    One thing that is certain: IF J-Mac were starting wars all over the world like BO is, the media would be screaming bloody murder over it. And that in itself would be a good thing, no?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    J'accuse! I knew everyone at reason loved Barack Obama back in the day. I knew it. Loooooooooooooved him.

    Now, who's this Maverick character we're talking about here?

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    The feminist parody of Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' you didn't know you were waiting for.

  • Killazontherun||

    So much better with the volume off. Feminism has ruined our species.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    The comments are pretty contentious:

    No one is degrading your gender so stop saying that you little wimp. Seriously, if you can't handle a music video that not only shows how sexist media is, but explains it then maybe you should reflect critically upon THAT viewpoint. Rape is being forced into sex without consenting, that's it, plain and simple. Videos like Blurred Lines make it seem like it's not that simple. I'm sorry that the majority of your gender is an idiot and I know, facts are offensive, but they're facts..

  • Fluffy||

    The Blurred Lines video has a rape in it?

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    I think she means the lyrics:

    Can't let it get past me
    You're far from plastic
    Talk about getting blasted
    I hate these blurred lines
    I know you want it
    I know you want it
    I know you want it
    But you're a good girl
    The way you grab me
    Must wanna get nasty
    Go ahead, get at me

    I think it's a stupid song, but I don't think it encourages rape so much as wanting women to initiate sex to make it simpler.

  • ||

    The next time you quote a YouTube comment here, I will hunt you down and kill you.

    Okay, not really, but Jaysus, the humanity.

  • Killazontherun||

    Jesus on a half shell, who ever wrote that is a freaking horror show up in the head. I would hate to know her on a personal level.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Seriously, if you can't handle a music video

    Wasn't that the motivation behind this "parody"? A bunch of feminists couldn't handle a video with half-naked women prancing around and a guy singing about women being just as sexually-driven as men, so they took the time and expense to make their own video?

  • William of Purple||

    Oh I hope we can discuss Vodka Samm


  • ||

    That's amazing. True American legend in the making. *Raises coffee cup in salute, pours whiskey in*

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    I'm trying to do the math on this. She seems fairly tall and thus bigger for a girl, but to blow a .341 she'd have to have slammed the equivalent of at least 9 drinks.

    How did she not end up in the hospital?

  • William of Purple||

    also it was 1PM

  • PapayaSF||

    That much liquor would kill me. If she keeps it up it'll kill her, too.

  • ||

    She's a professional. Just look at her Twitter feed.

    I was once in a bar with some friends, and some of them had gotten there at basically the same time as us, yet we already had drinks. So one of them goes "how do you already have drinks?" And my friend looks at me and goes "because we're professionals." And then we got loaded. AND IT WAS ALL TRUE.

  • John||

    I think she may have just taken a drink and that threw the number off. That number should have killed her.

  • ||

    She doesn't even make it into the top eight. Nowhere to go but up, Vodka Samm.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    There will always be outliers, and I guess Vodka Samm is one of them.

    But she has to be in the 99th percentile for alcohol tolerance among the population.

  • Dweebston||

    I'm feeling hangover pangs just reading this.

  • C. Anacreon||

    That number should have killed her.

    Nah -- we see people over .50 in the ER all the time - some who are walking and talking at that level. There are some hardcore alcoholics who go into serious alcohol withdrawal (shakes, confusion, vitals out of control) by going down to .341.

    If you are not a drinker, then yes, .341 will put a major hurt on you. If you drink a quart a day of hard liquor (which is not very unusual in our alcoholic patients) people might not even think you seem drunk at .341.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    I think the shock is that a female 22 year old college student has that level of tolerance for alcohol, comparable to a hardcore alcoholic.

    She needs to change her habits ASAP.

  • Killazontherun||

    I'm impressed. My old gang use to hangout near work at a bar in the basement of a hotel that was a nice out of the limelight niche. The bar had a breathalyzer which we treated like a game. I did some LSD after getting off of work, and feeling extra special lucid, did some shots of spiced rum. I wasn't feeling anything from the rum, and was drinking everyone else under the table. Curious what my blood alcohol content mosied over to the machine. Blew a .21. It was like, Holy Shit, brain and liver are not passing along the proper signals here.

  • Killazontherun||

    Just when I was bemoaning above college turning young women into creepy indoctrinated assholes my sense of hope is renewed. Thank you, Vodka Samm.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Still going strong:

    I gained like 6000 followers today and I'm over here just slapping the bag #wineme

    — Samantha (@Vodka_samm) September 2, 2013


  • Killazontherun||

    We need to get her to kiss a lobster while wearing a a Reason mag t-shirt.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    She's going to be a great ex-wife one day.

  • ||

  • Jordan||

    By the way, I should also mention that all my friends and ex-colleagues, they all loved the video, but all of them were afraid that I would be followed or even maybe bothered or harassed by the NSA in the future.

    Are you worried about that?

    I don’t want to worry about that, because in one way or another, NSA is a governmental organization. If I would be afraid of government even when it comes to such an innocent phone call, then we are really lost.

    Sigh. Another idiot prog who will keep his faith in government even as they march him to the gas chamber.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    So I guess Diana Nyad did not have the most impressive female accomplishment this weekend.

  • William of Purple||

    Kelly Heaphy, the girlfriend of Mike Skeen, who was clearly unhappy with Papis' actions on the final lap, confronted Papis to give him a piece of her mind.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    Here's a classic:

    McNugget Rampage

    And another:


  • Brett L||

    The McNugget rampage is fucking crazy. I mean, like, somewhere an ex-boyfriend of hers is in a shallow grave crazy.

  • Dweebston||

    More evidence that we need to up the minimum wage.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I'm surprised Homeland Security did not intercept Diana Nyad and lock her up for illegally entering the USA from Cuba.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Why would Diana want to leave the socialist worker's paradise of Cuba for the exploitation and misery of the capitalist USA?

    Doesn't she know that Cuba has free healthcare and edu-ma-cation?

  • Brett L||

    So I'm pondering the important question of starting Kapernik v Green Bay or Josh Freeman v. NYJ in my fantasy opener against Sloopy. I mean, Freeman v. the Jets D is like a lottery pick, but he could go crazy against them. Kapernik is going to go up against a decent GB team. What do y'all think?

  • William of Purple||


  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Wow, I didn't get invited this year? Someone's sick of losing.

  • Boisfeuras||

    Thank god that war monger never got into office!

  • ||

    thanks for this great article

  • LifeStrategies||

    McCain is at it again, he's a strong advocate for military intervention in Syria, despite virtuall no support for it in America. And there's absolutely no coherent military plan...


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