The Good Soldier

Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain certainly is a man of honor. But is he a man of principle?


Shocking, shocking, it's like the crazy aunt in the basement," 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.

Out of Annapolis, McCain became an aviator, a life for which the charismatic rebel seemed well suited. "I enjoyed shooting rockets and dropping bombs and shooting off guns," he told Esquire's Charles P. Pierce for a May 1998 article. "You're a young, single guy, and you go out and you fly for a couple of weeks, then you come in for a week and carouse like hell. Nobody deserves to get paid for that."

But McCain's life wasn't all bombs, booze, and babes. There were flying duties, which seemed rather hazardous for the young aviator. At advanced flight school, McCain's engine died one afternoon and he found himself at the bottom of Corpus Christi Bay. He flew into power lines over Spain and, returning to Mississippi from an Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, was forced to eject from his plane when its engine failed. He made the front page of The New York Times on July 31, 1967, when a renegade rocket ignited his Skyhawk's fuel tank while he was preparing to take off from the carrier Forrestal. The fire engulfed the Forrestal, killing 134 sailors–the worst disaster at sea since World War II. The accident was caused, military officials believe, by an electrical malfunction in a nearby plane, which launched a rocket on the ship's deck. McCain seemed to have bad luck around planes, but good luck escaping his bad luck. That was about to end.

On October 26, 1967, McCain was shot down over North Vietnam. Fished out of Trucbach Lake by North Vietnamese soldiers, he was escorted to Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, commonly referred to as the "Hanoi Hilton," the most famous institution in the North Vietnamese prison system, in which he would spend the next five and a half years. He refused early release, which would have violated the military's Code of Conduct for American Fighting Men. The code requires soldiers to accept release only on a first-in-first-out basis. With legs and arms broken beyond the ability of North Vietnamese doctors to repair, McCain could have justified an early exit based on medical necessity, and he considered it. But knowing this would have been a huge propaganda coup for the North Vietnamese–his father at the time was commander-in-chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and in less than a year would be put in charge of all U.S. military forces in the Pacific–he decided to stay.

And like other American POWs housed at the Hanoi Hilton, he paid his rent with brutal beatings. Writes Timberg: "He was moved to another cell where his arms, battered, broken, and bruised in one way or another since the day he was shot down, were lashed behind his back, then cinched tightly together to intensify the pain. He was left on a stool. Throughout the night, guards came in, asked him if he was ready to confess, then smashed their fists into him when he told them no.

"The next several days fell into a harrowing routine. The ropes came off in the morning. Beatings were administered throughout the day, usually by one guard, sometimes two. On occasion two guards would hold him up while a third hammered him senseless. At night, the ropes were reapplied."

McCain may have been a lifelong petty-rebel playboy, but when his moment came–five and a half years of moments–he acquitted himself with honor. McCain was broken once and signed a confession, an act which plunged him into despair. But in this McCain was no different from other POWs.

His record naturally impresses people, and it distinguishes McCain from political figures with less dramatic pasts. "People can talk real tough. They can say the right things," says Marshall Wittmann, former legislative director of the Christian Coalition and a McCain enthusiast. "But when the test came in his life, he not only passed it, but he passed it with incredible valor that very few people can match." Says Swindle, "When it came time to measure up, he measured up."

The question for an aspiring president, or an influential senator, is whether personal honor and physical courage are an adequate substitute for political principle. The United States is not an aristocracy but a modern republic. Its political officials do not lead personally loyal troops into battle. They create the impersonal rules that, if lawmakers do their work well, allow a free society to flourish.

McCain, by contrast, seems primarily interested in making government conform to his ideals of personal virtue. The appearance of corruption offends his sense of honor, making him above all a proponent of "good government." He led the charge for the 1996 Senate gift ban, which restricted the freebies senators and their staff could accept from individuals and organizations. He employed a person, dubbed "the ferret," who combed through bills looking for pork-barrel projects. The ferret has moved on, but McCain staffers still analyze each appropriation bill for pork, posting the results on his Web page. "He's a pork buster," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which scores McCain's lifetime voting record at 87 percent. "He's even protested pork in his own state."

Most recently, McCain voted against the 1999 budget bill, denouncing it on the Senate floor as a "betrayal of our responsibility to spend taxpayers' dollars wisely." Earlier in 1998, he voted against the monstrous highway bill, which was loaded up with more than 2,000 special projects–more than four for each congressional district. He labored for a decade on the line-item veto, a good-government tool that the Supreme Court just returned to the shed. He's quick to point out–right after saying, "I'm not a conventional politician" and just before adding, "not a popular position in Iowa"–that he opposes ethanol subsidies.

Like other good-government types, McCain hates special interests. He voted against the 1996 telecommunications act–the only Republican to do so–because special interests "driving that train" had made it too regulatory. Hating special interests, however, does not necessarily mean hating regulation.

Cut to Big Tobacco. It's in the tobacco legislation that McCain's sense of "principle" shines through. He was assigned the task, so he did his duty in crafting legislation that could make it to the Senate floor. The anti-tobacco bill was about good government: McCain appears genuine in his belief that tobacco use foists a $50-billion-a-year tab on taxpayers. It was about honesty: Says McCain, "They lied to Congress and the American people." It was about children: "Three thousand kids start smoking every day, 1,000 will die early," McCain would chant anytime a television camera was near. It was about what the experts say is best: "It wasn't my views I was articulating; they were the views of every expert in America," McCain told a National Health Council audience in July. Add McCain's work ethic to this mix–the ethic that put him in the Senate less than six years after he first moved to Arizona–and you get a committed anti-tobacco warrior.

McCain's focus on campaign finance reform is also easy to understand. Ask people what's the first thing that comes to mind when they hear McCain's name, and they are likely to say "maverick," "POW," "independent," or "war hero." They aren't likely to say what McCain fears the most: "Keating Five."

McCain was close to Charles H. Keating Jr., the savings and loan swindler who gave generously to politicians and then sought their help. From 1982 to 1988, McCain collected more than $100,000 of Keating's cash for his campaign funds and vacationed with Keating several times, flying on Keating's jet to the Bahamas. McCain's second wife and father-in-law invested $359,000 with Keating in a shopping center.

McCain attended the two infamous April 1987 meetings in the office of then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) where Keating's business dealings were discussed with banking regulators. Although McCain didn't seek any favors for his former friend, he was still implicated in the scandal: all that money, the vacations, and the meetings. He was the only Republican involved, and there was no way the Democrat-controlled Senate would absolve him early, thereby losing the veneer of bipartisan scandal.

Although the Senate eventually cleared McCain, the appearance that he sold his high office called his honor into question, an indelible stain on an otherwise perfect record of public service. "Here is a man whose family –father, grandfather and himself–were real patriots, and he was accused of being a sleaze," former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman told National Journal in 1997. "He told me that from his point of view it was worse than being in Vietnam and in prison."

For McCain, campaign finance reform is therefore imperative. By working to reform the supposedly "corrupt" system, he implicitly transfers blame for his Keating connection. If the First Amendment takes a beating, so be it. From a politically principled viewpoint, that sounds selfish, even dishonorable. But that isn't how McCain sees the matter: If the system could make even him look sleazy, he seems to reason, there is something wrong with the system.

Republicans have plenty of recent experience with honorable presidential candidates who operate on aristocratic virtues. Think Bob Dole, the man McCain most admires as a senator, and George Bush, who never mastered that "vision thing."

"Bush and Dole were civil servants in the most distinguished sense of the word–admirable men. The same can be said of McCain," says Rahe, the University of Tulsa historian. But they "can't project a vision or provide leadership except in a crisis." Such men do not achieve high office to change the world but rather to fulfill a combination of ambition and duty. In McCain, America would get an auditor-in-chief. "We could do a lot worse," says Rahe. "But we could do a lot better."

Political scientist John J. Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College and a REASON contributing editor, agrees. "On the personal level he has the capacity to inspire trust, which we have seen [during Clinton's scandals] is important," says Pitney. "But there's more to leadership than that. Leaders have to have a clear sense of direction. And that's the question for John McCain: Does he have a clear sense of direction?"

He certainly doesn't articulate a vision, although he seems to know it's important to have one. "There's no country that has been this powerful since the Roman Empire," McCain responds, when I asked him what he would like to accomplish as president. "If you accept that fact, then the leader of the world's most powerful nation can be an incredible force for good, both within the boundaries of the United States and without."

Outside the nation's borders, McCain would focus on "democracy, freedom, stability, economic growth, and peace." His biggest criticism of the Clinton administration, with which he's often cooperated, is "they have no conceptual framework of what they want the world to look like in the next century." True enough–except that McCain, too, lacks such a framework.

When the Standard's Ferguson tried to nail him down on his vision, McCain replied: "The first thing I'd do is convene the best minds I know of in the field of foreign policy….I'd say, `Look, let's figure out where we are, where we need to go, and what our conceptual framework is. Let's work out a cohesive foreign policy.' I'm sure that those people, with their collective brilliance and a lot of experience, could come up with a very cohesive foreign policy."

Relying on experts "goes well with a military background," says Rahe. "The Navy and Air Force see the world as engineers, a series of technical problems that need to be fixed." McCain, who repeatedly calls on the authority of experts to justify his positions on issues ranging from foreign policy to tobacco, fits this pattern well. So well, in fact, that Ferguson called him "a thinking man's Perot."

McCain's vision isn't much clearer on domestic policy. In many ways, he's a typical Republican. He knows what he's against–government waste, special interests, and unfiltered, er, any cigarettes–but just can't come up with a compelling list of what he's for. Sure, he supports the obvious in the information age of the kid: technology and children. "[We need to] help every American to be part of this incredible economic revolution taking place in the form of information and technology, which for the first time could provide every child in America with an equal opportunity," he says.

Again employing Perot-style technocratic language, McCain talks of the need for government to support "programs that have proven successful," as well as "encouraging private industry and private enterprise." When asked for examples of successful government programs, McCain comes up with Head Start and the Women, Infants, and Children welfare program.

It's not that McCain doesn't ring the right libertarian policy bells. He just rings them cautiously. "Among" the solutions for America's K-12 educational malaise, according to McCain, are "vouchers and charter schools." On Social Security reform, perhaps the most significant policy issue likely to face the Senate this year, McCain is "pleased that the majority of the American people are now saying that privatization or some kind of privatization should be part of the debate." On tax reform, he "favors the flat tax" and setting a "cutoff date for the IRS code."

On encryption, however, he's "in a terrible quandary," since the national security establishment opposes strong privacy protections. Says McCain: "I'm not about to take a position which the people to whom we entrust our national security say would endanger us." If not you, Mr. War Hero, then who?

In fact, McCain is downright hostile to the unaristocratic notion that individuals have a fundamental right to pursue happiness as they see fit as long as they do not hurt other people. "The guy's a busybody," says the Cato Institute's Ed Crane. "He just wants to butt into everyone else's business."

The senator is an avid drug warrior who opposed Arizona's medical marijuana initiative. "It's a misguided proposal," says McCain. "We are opening the door to the abuse of all kinds of illegal drugs." He is the chief sponsor of a Senate bill that would require schools and libraries to install Internet filters. "Pornography and child pornography," he says, "are serious problems." And McCain has devoted serious time to ensuring that ultimate fighting–a free-form, unscripted combination of martial arts and pro wrestling–is effectively banned in much of the country. "There are lots of things we prevent consenting adults from doing," he said on Larry King Live.

In the end, it looks likely that McCain's maverick sense of virtue will keep him from any serious run for the presidency. Although his bravery and charisma might serve him well in a general election, GOP primary voters care about political consistency. The party's traditionalist and libertarian wings may bitterly oppose each other, but they both profess a definition of principle that is bourgeois, impersonal, and quite foreign to McCain. It is not enough to be honest, stubborn, and loyal.

"In this country we have two parties," says the ACU's David Keene. "One of them is the pro-government party; one of them is the anti-government party. If you are going to be a leader in the anti-government party, you can't be seen as pro-government every step of the way."

Michael W. Lynch (mlynch@reasondc.org) is REASON's Washington editor.