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Submerging and channeling his individuality into the “greater cause” of American patriotism became McCain’s reason for living. “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.” Upon his return to America he rehabilitated his injuries, studied the Vietnam War for a year at the National War College (cashing in on his father’s connections to gain a privilege for which his rank of lieutenant commander did not qualify him), commanded an air squadron for two years (again attaining a position for which he wasn’t technically qualified), and then rode out the 1970s as the Navy’s liaison officer to the U.S. Senate, where he built the political relationships that made possible his second career. After divorcing his first wife, retiring from the Navy, and marrying the young Arizona-based daughter of one of the country’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributors, McCain hunted around for an available Arizona congressional seat, bought a house in the district of 30-year GOP incumbent Jim Rhodes on the day the congressman announced his retirement, and served two terms in Congress before graduating to the Senate, where he succeeded a retiring Barry Goldwater in 1986.
Starting off as a Reagan conservative, McCain soon got caught up in the 1989 “Keating Five” scandal, in which he and four other senators were raked over the coals for pressuring regulators to go easy on the savings and loan magnate (and generous campaign donor) Charles Keating. Because the scandal called his honor and integrity into question, he counted it as an even worse experience than Vietnam. After enduring the scandal and his wife’s messy addiction to pills, McCain locked in on a lifelong political goal: to give all Americans the same opportunity to transform their lives that he had, by focusing their belief on the Land of the Free.
The 12-Step Guide to Expanding Government
Reading McCain’s four best-selling books is a revelatory experience. Not since Teddy Roosevelt has a leading presidential contender committed so many words to print about his philosophies of life and governance before seeking the Oval Office. All of McCain’s charming strengths and alarming foibles are there, hiding in plain sight, often unintentionally.
McCain on the page is reflexively self-effacing (“I have spent much of my life choosing my own attitude, often carelessly, often for no better reason than to indulge a conceit,” he writes in the second paragraph of Faith of My Fathers), consciously reverent of his heroes (Why Courage Matters and Character Is Destiny are basically collections of hagiographic mini-profiles threaded with a few self-help bromides), and refreshingly authentic-sounding (for a politician, anyway). He has a tendency to write passages that would fit perfectly in a 12-step recovery guide, especially Steps 1 (admitting the problem) and 2 (investing faith in a “Power greater than ourselves”). There isn’t any evidence that McCain himself has gone through the 12 steps, but his father was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, his second wife received treatment in 1994 for her five-year addiction to pain medication, and he has spent a life surrounded by substance abusers. “I have learned the truth,” he writes in Faith of My Fathers. “There are greater pursuits than self-seeking.…Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself.”
That “something” is the “last, best hope of humanity,” the “advocate for all who believed in the Rights of Man,” the “city on a hill” once dreamed by Puritan pilgrim John Winthrop (whom McCain celebrates in Character Is Destiny). Any thing or person perceived as tarnishing that city’s luster has a sworn enemy in the Arizona senator. “Our greatness,” he writes in Worth the Fighting For, “depends upon our patriotism, and our patriotism is hardly encouraged when we cannot take pride in the highest public institutions, institutions that should transcend all sectarian, regional, and commercial conflicts to fortify the public’s allegiance to the national community.”
So it was that McCain fought in 1994 to abolish a minor congressional privilege—use of the parking lot closest to the main terminal at National Airport. He readily acknowledged this was “merely a symbol” of corruption, not an actual abuse of power. “I meant only to recognize that people mistook such things for self-aggrandizement,” he explained in Worth the Fighting For. “Every appearance that inadvertently exacerbates their distrust is a far more serious injury than it would be had we made other, more serious attempts to rekindle Americans’ pride in their government.”
So many ways for Americans to lose their pride in government, so little time for reform! Everything from the trivial to the sublime became a “transcendent issue” requiring urgent federal attention. McCain has used the “transcendent” tag not just for campaign finance reform, the War on Terror, and Iraq, but for expanding Medicare, cracking down on Hollywood marketers, even banning ultimate fighting on Indian reservations. “National pride will not survive the people’s contempt for government,” he wrote in Worth the Fighting For. “And national pride should be as indispensable to the happiness of Americans as is our self-respect.”
Occasionally this impulse translates into a libertarian stance, as with the senator’s long-running rhetorical war on pork-barrel spending. More often it results in more government, even at the expense of the First Amendment.
Such has been the case with McCain’s favorite domestic issue: campaign finance reform. To restore Americans’ faith in their political system, McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) sponsored a 2002 law that prohibits advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club from paying for any radio or TV ad that mentions a federal candidate within two months of an election. As a result, active political participants (candidates and parties) and deep-pocketed media organizations can continue to attack and praise contenders, but independent groups may not (unless they form separate political action committees subject to federal contribution limits). Meanwhile, the McCain-Feingold bill tasked the Federal Election Commission with constantly re-interpreting the rules to close off new sources of financial support for political speech.
McCain’s fondness for government power doesn’t stop there. He pushed for the huge airline industry bailouts after September 11. He recently proposed legislation requiring every registered sex offender in the country to report all their active email accounts to law enforcement or face prison. He wants to federalize the oversight of professional boxing. He wants yet more vigor in fighting the War on Meth. He has been active in trying to shut down the “gun show loophole,” which allows private citizens to sell each other guns without conducting background checks. He has lauded Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against the “unrestricted individualism” of the businessman who “injures the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit.”
If you’re beginning to detect a rigid sense of citizenship and a skeptical attitude toward individual choice, you are beginning to understand what kind of president John McCain actually would make, in contrast with the straight-talking maverick that journalists love to quote but rarely examine in depth. For years McCain has warned that a draft will be necessary if we don’t boost military pay, and he has long agitated for mandatory national service. “Those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect,” he wrote in The Washington Monthly in 2001. “Sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause. Americans did not fight and win World War II as discrete individuals.”
McCain’s attitude toward individuals who choose paths he deems inappropriate is somewhere between inflexible and hostile. Nowhere is that more evident than when he writes about his hero Teddy Roosevelt, a man whose racism (he was a Darwin-inspired eugenicist who believed “race purity must be maintained”) and megalomania (he declared before the 1916 presidential campaign that “it would be a mistake to nominate me unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic”) do not merit more than a couple paragraphs’ pause in McCain’s adulation of his expansionist accomplishments. “In the Roosevelt code, the authentic meaning of freedom gave equal respect to self-interest and common purpose, to rights and duties,” McCain writes. “And it absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country’s sake.…His insistence that every citizen owed primary allegiance to American ideals, and to the symbols, habits, and consciousness of American citizenship, was as right then as it is now.” McCain, always disarmingly transparent in projecting his own ambitions onto the objects of his hagiography, describes Roosevelt as an “Eastern swell” who traveled West and fought wars to become “a man of the people.” He admires in equal measure the former president’s trust busting, his prolific writing, and his boyish, bull-headed vigor, but somewhere down deep he will always see Roosevelt as the commander of the Great White Fleet.
All War, All the Time
McCain’s lack of respect for individual choice, coupled with his slow-motion suck-up to social conservatives, has led to several reversals of social policy positions, most conspicuously regarding gay rights. McCain voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, has repeatedly chastised his fellow Republicans for trying to win votes by marginalizing gay Americans, and gave a stirring eulogy in San Francisco for the United Flight 93 hero Mark Bingham, who was gay. But in the 2006 elections he made a fool of himself campaigning for an Arizona ballot initiative banning gay marriage. Perhaps because of the libertarian strain in Arizona’s political tradition, the proposition lost. McCain has been a pretty consistent opponent of abortion, but he went from saying he wouldn’t seek to reverse Roe v. Wade in 1999 to saying he would in 2006.