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."

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.

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.