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Such flip-flops have cooled McCain’s longstanding, mutually satisfying love affair with journalists. The senator had a natural affinity for writers long before his political career—befriending, for example, the legendary New York Times scribe R. W. “Johnny” Apple before his imprisonment in Vietnam. During the Keating Five scandal, he made a decision to start answering all media inquiries promptly and exhaustively. If there’s one thing journalists love, it’s access. (The New Republic’s John Judis opened a 2006 analysis of McCain by gushing about how he has liked him ever since a one-on-one interview a decade ago.)
And if there’s one thing reporters love more than access, it’s politicians who buck the orthodoxy of their own party, especially when the party is Republican. McCain made some lifelong media allies when he called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” in 2000 and when he spoke out against ethanol subsidies despite the strategic importance of the Iowa caucuses. Throw in his war hero status, which plays well in the eyes of a distinctly nonmartial profession, and you’ve got the most favorable press notices of any U.S. senator.
Until now. Besides the damage done by his sudden turn to social conservatism, McCain’s stubborn and distinctly glum support of Bush’s widely despised troop surge in Iraq has brought into sharp focus the candidate’s concepts of when and how Washington should use the strongest military ever assembled, and whether the president should recognize any constraints from the co-equal branches of government. On these questions, the most militaristic presidential candidate since Ulysses S. Grant has provided a clear answer: If you think George W. Bush had an itchy trigger finger, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In addition to calling for tens of thousands more troops in Iraq than Bush has committed, McCain has pushed to keep military options against Iran “open,” criticized the “repeated failure to back…rhetoric with action” against North Korea, supported a general policy of “rogue state rollback,” and lamented the Pentagon’s failure to intervene in Darfur. On his short list of senatorial regrets is voting to cut off funds for the botched invasion of Somalia and failing to push for sending troops to Rwanda. Like the neoconservatives with whom he has increasingly aligned himself, he sees Iraq and Iran as integral to a new twilight struggle against Islamic radicalism, while holding onto the belief that too much multilateralism can screw up a perfectly good war.
“A world where our ideals had a realistic chance of becoming a universal creed was our principal object in the last century,” he wrote in Worth the Fighting For. “In the process, we became inextricably involved in the destiny of other nations. That is not a cause for concern. It is a cause for hope.” As for the current mess in Iraq, McCain defends Bush’s doubling down by arguing that the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. “We should make no mistake: Potentially catastrophic consequences of failure demand that we do all we can to prevail in Iraq,” he said in the Senate on January 11. “We were able to walk away from Vietnam. If we walk away from Iraq, we’ll be back, possibly in the context of a wider war in the world’s most volatile region.”
Regarding the U.S. president’s war-related prerogatives, McCain has a nearly unbroken record of deferring to them, from the moment he volunteered to testify against The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case (even though his only expertise was in being a prisoner of war) to his rollover when Bush insisted that his ballyhooed anti-torture bill deny habeas corpus rights to War on Terror detainees and give the White House authority “to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.” McCain once wrote that Teddy Roosevelt “invented the modern presidency by liberally interpreting the constitutional authority of the office to redress the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches that had tilted decisively toward Congress.” This is the kind of president John McCain is aching to be.
McCain is at his most unintentionally revealing when writing about his Republican predecessor in the Senate, Barry Goldwater. “I really don’t think he liked me much,” he wrote in Worth the Fighting For. “I don’t know why that was.…He was usually cordial, just never as affectionate as I would have liked.”
That it never occurred to McCain why a libertarian Westerner might keep a “national greatness” conservative and D.C.-bred carpetbagger at arm’s length is both touching and deeply worrisome. Does he not understand that there are at least some people in American life who take liberty as seriously as McCain takes his notions of national duty? Judging by a comment he made recently on the Don Imus radio show, the answer seems to be no. Defending campaign finance reform, McCain said, “I would rather have a clean government than one…where ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice I’d rather have a clean government.”
He may have his choice soon enough.
Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.