John McCain

An Open Letter to Editorial Page Editors

Re: Your coming endorsement of John McCain


Dear former colleagues,

Look, I'm not here to talk you out of endorsing John McCain. Partly because I'm not in the habit of inflicting my crazy electoral preferences on other people, but mostly because I know you're going to endorse McCain regardless of what anyone else says. (And not merely "endorse" him, either: You'll compare his "firm principles" to "the gyroscopes that keep ships and planes on course," you'll unleash an additional "anti-endorsement" upon his one-state-over rival, and you'll keep endorsing away all season.)

No, I bring you all here on this Michigan primary day to make one last plea on behalf of the dwindling number of us who read or care about newspaper editorials. Before passing on your McEnthusiasms to the Copy Desk, please remember your canonical journalistic responsibility not to make shit up or pass along easily debunkable falsehoods. Particularly when the subject of your affection has provided copious evidence to the contrary of your claims.

For instance, in the most telegraphed endorsement of the campaign season (and perhaps the most fitting, given the masthead) The State newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina, would have us believe the following:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonor it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost. [italics mine]

Never mislead? Does a "lie" count as misleading in South Carolina? Because that's what McCain repeatedly copped to, after flip-flopping in the Palmetto State during the 2000 campaign on the Confederate flag, calling it a "symbol of racism" one day and a "state's rights" issue the next. "The politician who promises to put patriotism before selfishness, who promises not to lie, and then reneges," he reflected in his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For, "does more harm to the public trust than does the politician who makes no issues of his or her virtue."

Considering that McCain in New Hampshire this month railed against "negative ads" while running them, and then bragged in his victory speech that he "always told you the truth," it seems timelier than ever to double-check, rather than rubber-stamp, the new front-runner's honesty. Particularly since his voluminous writings are filled with warnings like: "the worst decisions I have made, not just in politics but over the course of my entire life, have been those I made to seek an advantage primarily or solely for myself."

Perhaps it's asking for too much to expect due diligence out of an editor who says "if John McCain has no chance, America has no chance," but surely they're not drinking the Kool-Aid in Kalamazoo? Think again:

He has made mistakes, for example, getting too close to the "Keating Five" in the savings and loan scandal of the 1990s. But he has been open about his mistakes and appears to have learned from them.

First of all, the contentious closeness in the Keating Five scandal was not McCain's relationship with his fellow four senators, but with the first great benefactor of his political career: the crook Charles Keating, on whose behalf McCain met with regulators to ask that they expedite investigations into Keating's failing savings & loan business.

But the real howler in the Keating Five context is that McCain "has been open about his mistakes." During the scandal, and as recently as Worth the Fighting For, McCain pleaded guilty only to "poor judgment" in attending a measly two meetings on behalf of a major employer in his state, and expressed great bitterness at being target of what he believed to be a partisan witch-hunt. Remarkably, in his book Hard Call, he finally changed his tune about the meetings, 20 years too late:

I did so for no other reason than I valued [Charles Keating's] support….Had I weighed the question of honor it occasioned and the public interest more than my personal interest to render a small service to an important supporter, I would not have attended the meeting….I lacked humility and an inspiration to some purpose higher than self-interest.

OK, so I don't expect you to read all those books. But other things are more easy to discern (and debunk) from the public record. For instance, Port Huron Times-Herald, there is a fatal flaw in this couplet:

For much of his career, McCain has stood by what he believes, no matter how unpopular. He opposed GOP tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

I'll say this slowly, since it keeps coming up: You cannot credibly cite McCain's record on tax cuts as evidence of his politics-be-damned straight-talkiness. Why? Because he flip-flopped on the issue once he began clearing the decks for the 2008 campaign. A man who "stood by what he believes" would have been either a consistent tax-cutter or a consistent only-when-we-also-cut-government guy, not both.

But the most boggling (and significant) McCain legend being perpetuated by editorial boards is the following:

McCain is strong on national defense but he's no warmonger.

John McCain was the neoconservatives' great hope in 2000, running as an interventionist against George Bush's purported "humble" realism. He is the third generation in a family whose basic bedrock belief is that U.S. military power alone can and must guarantee world safety. He told me personally that America's percentage of global defense spending—currently more than one-half—is too small. When you ask him about the propriety of having U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years, he doesn't even understand the question. He sees imminent threats from North Korea to China to Iran.

And most importantly, he was for pre-emptive war before it was cool. Before signing off on that endorsement, consider your own often contrary views on Iraq and the overstretched U.S. military, and then read this passage:

[T]he proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the clearest danger we currently confront. Nowhere is the threat more worrisome than in rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea and others. The United States should formulate a policy, in many ways similar to the Reagan Doctrine, of supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states. Call it rogue state rollback if you will. Such a policy serves both our security and our ideals because, again, they are inseparable from one another.

I offer one caution, however. If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation. Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq. Character counts, my friends, at home and abroad. […]

The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats.

We know you like the guy, already, but please try to tell readers who he actually is, rather than who you'd like him to be.

Yr Pal,

Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of reason, and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

NEXT: Forget Being a Brain in a Vat—You May Be a Brain Floating in Space

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  1. I haven’t read Matt’s piece yet, but I bet it can be summarized as “don’t!”.

  2. Any book-pimping in this one? Wait for it…

    Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of reason, and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

    …there it is.

  3. It’s Bob Dole’s turn!

    Wait…It’s John McCain’s turn!

  4. I haven’t read Matt’s piece yet, but I bet it can be summarized as “don’t!”.

    If you are thinking of endorsing John McCain for president, DON’T!!!

  5. If Mitt Romney straps a dog to his roof, it’s because he’s too freaking stupid to know that you’re not supposed to do that.

    If John McCain straps a dog to his roof, it’s because the dog pissed him off.

  6. Not many people know this, but Matt Welch is really Matthew Lillard. If you don’t believe me, check out the photo:

  7. Matt you slacker! You’re suppose to be keeping this tyrant OUT of the oval office. Have you seen his InTrade stock! GODDAMNIT Matt. Get off your white ass and go create a scandal or something. Unless we get another flurry of Iraqi IEDs we’re all going to live in McCainville. What do you get when you cross a Nanny State with an abusive parent? The workhouse state? Fucking eh, I bet he’s already printing his little red book.

  8. 1. McCain flip flopped on the Confederate Flag in South Carolina in 2000. So what? What is Reason’s position on the Confederate Flag controversy?

    2. McCain was in with Charles Keeting. That is a fair criticism. Keeting was a crook and McCain was in bed with him. It was also 20 years ago. If McCain really was that big of a crook, it would seem to me that you could come up with something on him more recent than that. He has been in the Senate for the entire time. At some point there is a statute of limitations on this kind of thing. Is it your contention Matt that McCain’s only stain of corruption in decades of public office was the Keeting scandal back in the early 90s? If that is true, I would say McCain is more honest than most politicians in either party. If it is not true, why don’t you talk about something more recent and relevant?

    3. McCain has never been a consistent tax cutter. Again, fair enough he really hasn’t been. But exactly how much credit Matt have you or your magazine given to Bush for cutting taxes? That would be slim and none. It is a bit rich for you to come in now and rip on McCain for not supporting tax cuts when your magazine doesn’t seem to deem them important enough to ever talk about or lend any support. Further, even if you are a genuine tax cutter, does that mean that you support Thompson, who is probably the most consistent advocate of tax cuts in the field?

    4. McCain is a war monger. Now we get to the heart of why Matt hates McCain so much. He quotes McCain as saying “The United States should formulate a policy, in many ways similar to the Reagan Doctrine, of supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states.” Well no shit Matt. I think everyone knows McCain’s position on these issues by now. Who exactly is endorsing McCain thinking he is an isolationist? How is endorsing McCain not telling readers who “he actually is, rather than who you’d like him to be.” Who wants McCain to be an isolationist? What the hell is your point here? You don’t agree with McCain about interventionism. That is your right. But you get such a case of the vapors over it. You act no one in the world agrees with McCain outside of some mysterious group of “neocons” whoever they are and everyone who endorses him does so without knowing the deep dark truth of his candidacy. Give me a break. People vote for McCain primarily because they support the war and McCain is the most vocal supporter of it. If you don’t like the fact that people still despite your protein wisdom on the subject, support the war, tough shit, sometimes life is like that.

    I am not even a supporter of McCain. I will never forgive him for campaign finance reform and I think he has a terrible temperament to be President. He is too arrogant and combative. He would be a disaster as a President. But the more Welch writes on the subject, the better McCain looks.

  9. I think you’re missing the point, John. Others are making false claims about McCain, and Matt is simply setting the record straight.

  10. “I think you’re missing the point, John. Others are making false claims about McCain, and Matt is simply setting the record straight”

    Whatever “false claims” they are making, they are not claiming that McCain is anything but an unabashed supporter of the war. Further, all of the alleged “criticisms” of McCain Welch puts forth are all pretty chickenshit, except for his position on the war which Welch has a legitimate beef with. The problem is that Welch just can’t accept the fact that anyone could possibly disagree with him and agree with McCain about the war. So in Welch’s mind any support of McCain must be because of some conspiracy to lie about McCain’s record. Welch’s pursuit of McCain is starting to border on some kind of derangement syndrome.

    You don’t agree with McCain about the war and several other things. You think he would be a bad President. We got it Matt.

  11. It’s not as lively around here since he who cannot be named was purged.
    Has McCain by chance lent his name to any loosely edited newsletters?


  13. The problem is that Welch just can’t accept the fact that anyone could possibly disagree with him and agree with McCain about the war. So in Welch’s mind any support of McCain must be because of some conspiracy to lie about McCain’s record.

    That’s really not the problem, on account of not being remotely true.

    I’ve had people read my book and say they’re *more* likely to vote for him because of it, to which I say “huzzah!”

  14. I’m not sure what Matt’s point is about McCain’s Confederate flag remarks. Maybe I just need more context? But it seems consistent to say (1) the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and (2) it should be up to individual States whether to fly the flag.

  15. Regis — I should have used longer quotes. Basically, he said first that the flag was a symbol of racism and should therefore come down, and then the next day said that it was really a state issue and that’s all he was going to say about it.

    He was pissed off about saying the latter, because in his “heart” he preferred the former, so he would, when asked, elaborately unfold a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and woodenly read the tepid states’ rights comment “like a hostage,” in order to signal to reporters that his heart really wasn’t in it.

    After the campaign was over, he returned to South Carolina and repudiated his states’ rights claim, admitting that he’d said something he didn’t believe, for political expediency. He went on to call his states’ rights statement a “lie” in several venues, including his book and on Larry King Live.

    He’s not much of a federalist, all in all.

  16. Matt,

    IIRC, wasn’t this SC flag issue about the Confederate Battle flag and not even about the flag of the Confederacy at all?

    But, yes, McCain was all over both sides of that issue. Sounds like it is common with Naval officers who join the ranks of the Senate.

  17. Good but you need to criticize head-on the view that McCain is a principled opponent of torture. His support for the torture-enabling Military Commissions Act shows that he isn’t. The much hated RP (at least at Reason) is the only consistent opponent of torture in the GOP field.

    If I were to pile on, of course, I’d note that McCain has still not fully apologized for public comment calling the Vietnamese gooks.

  18. The criticism of McCain on his “torture” view is that he wishes to lump in any old thing that a passing Leftist wants to call the US on (while blaming all foreign torture on the US). He might as well ask Murtha to be his running mate or promise him a Sec. Def. job.

  19. I think Matt’s criticisms of McCain are mostly justified, and I could think of some others. I am from a country that was run by the Nazis for 5 years within my grandparents’ and some schoolteachers’ lifetime, and I was raised and educated by such people to be extremely suspicious of talk of “national greatness” and the like. I know this is mostly symbolic, but McCain’s nationalist ersatz religion, elevating an admittedly historically successful but ultimately fairly arbitrary political-administrative unit to the “something greater than yourself” that can give meaning to your life-that scares the hell out of me.

    At the same time, the main flaw of Matt’s article is simply that he knows as well as anyone that given some time he could have dug up a similar set of criticisms about any of the other Republican candidates. Of course that might be reason for a conscientious op-ed editor not to endorse anyone at all until the Perfect Candidate comes around, one who thinks of government as a pragmatic least of evils that can keep the peace and leave the manufacturing of Higher Causes to civil society… but I don’t think that’s how op-ed pages work.

  20. Actually, I called those gooks Motherfuckers.

  21. Note: my last comment was not about Matt’s work, it was my comment about Sen. McCain

  22. I think you folks who think that Welch is simply a McCain basher either have difficulty understanding the words he’s written, or are jumping to conclusions, without having spent any time actually reading the words.

    From the best that I can determine, Welch is being just as(if not moreso)critical of the media narrative “McCain the straight shooting Maverick”, as he is of the man himself.

    From the Acknowledgements of his book, “Rare indeed is the politician who sustains his or her interestingness after lengthy study.”

    From the Washington Post review of the book, “But in the end, this unflattering portrait turns out to be surprisingly flattering.”

    Even in this piece, the message I get is more along the lines that jimmydageek points out. By all means endorse the fellow, there are any number of reasons to do so, but please stop the hagiography (especially when it’s so easily debunkable) and ” tell readers who he actually is, rather than who you’d like him to be.”

    You folks are doing a disservice to both the author and his subject matter by making such a simplistic reading of the work.

  23. Sje –
    Matt’s aritlce is merely saying not to call McCain something he’s not. The media play him out to be perfect in every way, and that’s just not the case.

  24. Matt-

    Thanks for the clarification. Your complaint makes more sense to me now.

  25. Reinmoose,

    Okay, I think I can agree with that.

  26. How about, don’t plagiarize the endorsement from his speeches, and if you do, don’t distribute it throughout your newspaper network to every former “hometown” paper. Actually, go ahead. Next time people want to know what happened at the town council meeting, maybe they will show up themselves.

    Perhaps MW was unaware these endorsements have become a joke?

  27. And you thought it was too late to write that book!

    You must be licking your chops. Sales must be going through the roof! You’re gonna end up on the McLaughlin Group!

  28. McCain flippantly said that he didn’t care if we were in Iraq for a hundred, thousand, or even a million years. How many new terrorist recruits did he incite with that one? McCain is a warmonger and a nut.

  29. I have spent time reading the article and the links provided within.

    It was a poorly written article jumping to conclusions on a very narrow list of subjects and quotes.

    For the record, I think McCain is a nut, I just think that Welch could have done so much better.

  30. [Hmm.]

  31. McCain’s record is indeed rather mixed–or, in other words:

    McCain supports amnesty for illegal aliens, was behind the Gang of 14, is a gun grabber, opposed the Bush tax cuts, ran roughshod over the Constitution with McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform, opposes a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage, was rumored to be considering switching parties multiple times, talked with John Kerry about being his Vice-President, lines up with the global warming alarmists, wants to close Gitmo, wants to coddle captured terrorists — you can go on and on with this. In essence, John McCain is hawkish, he’s fiscally conservative, he has a solid pro-life voting record that is at odds with his previously stated opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade (“I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade.” –John McCain, 1999) — and on everything else, he’s a Democrat.,_john_mccain

  32. McCain is a wonderful candidate.

    He’s against free speech, wants to keep troops in Iraq for 100 years, and wants to put missiles in a country that hasn’t existed for 16 years.

    Please, endorse him.

  33. So at some point I realized that McCain competes with Paul for (among others) the anti-war votes and the “integrity-in-government” votes (related as those are). McCain’s continuing relative success is not very helpful for Paul, especially in retrospect of the Maine disappointment as it is supposedly a live-free-or-die kind of place. If libertarians need to bring anyone down to make Paul important, it’s McCain. So here we are. But I doubt reason staff really would deny this line of thinking influences their choice of what (who) to write about, and anyway it doesn’t make their analyses incorrect.

  34. Matt D.,

    That quote you provided kind of makes me have even more respect for McCain. Honestly, I really do kind of like the guy. Yeah, he might have lied about the Confederate Flag but at least he admitted that he was lying.

  35. your website does not show up correctly on my iphone, you may wanna try and fix that

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