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.
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.”