John McCain

The McCain Family's White Lies

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The Christian Science Monitor rounds up some exaggerations the McCains have apparently made about Mother Teresa's role in the adoption of their daughter from Bangladesh, and about what exactly Cindy McCain looked at when she visited the Hanoi Hilton. A couple of points about this, and the whole cross-in-the-dirt mini-kerfuffle:

1) Humans embellish memory. It's what we do, consciously or not, like it or not. One of my favorite micro-genres of literature is journalistic corrections of the protagonist's memory (Timoth Garton Ash's terrific The File combines that sobering exercise, of a middle-aged historian fact-checking his misspent youth, with the espionage and paranoia of Cold War East Berlin).

2) Political humans embellish memory more than most. Incentive-wise, politicians obviously are geared toward doing what it takes to win elections, John McCain just as much as anyone else. One of his most ballyhooed early moments as a politician came when he refuted (accurate) accusations of being a carpetbagger to Arizona by saying "As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." Well, as a matter of fact, he lived in Hanoi for five and a half years, but had lived in Arlington, Va. for at least five years as a kid, and then for several years after he came back from Vietnam.

A perhaps even more important factor than motive, however, is lifestyle. Which is to say, politicians –and John McCain much more than most–spend their days telling the same old stories, the same stale jokes, the same moving anecdotes from decades gone by. To cite one harmless example, if you do a Google search on "John McCain" and "live long enough" and "French," you will get 5,400 different results of him making the same stale crack about "pro-American" French president Nicolas Sarkozy. I challenge any human, let alone a politician incentivized to tell shaggy dog stories, to recite the same lines thousands of times without them becoming an almost pure abstraction. People want to bust McCain's chops for changing the professional football team in one of his favorite Hanoi anecdotes from the Green Bay Packers to the Pittsburgh Steelers while he was in Pennsylvania; but where others see cold political cynicism I see a 71-year-old man on autopilot, pressing "play" on a story he probably doesn't even remember anymore, maybe seeing the word "Pittsburgh" in his line of vision, and then making the boo-boo.

In many ways, McCain reminds me of another politician I happen to know pretty well, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan. Both men are short, septuagenarian political rapscalians with a taste for booze and (younger) broads, who are on some level absolutely terrified of solitude, and so are just constantly yapping to a chorus of mostly charmed listeners. I've had Riordan tell me the same terrible Jonathan Winters joke within the span of 30 minutes, and add layers of, ah, fresh detail to his hoary old stories.

3) The McCains have a history of lying. This I guess still comes as a shock, but is no less true. Both Cindy and John lied to one another about their respective ages until their wedding day, to cite one funny example. 

4) McCain's history has never really been scrutinized before. This may sound hard to believe for 26-year veteran of Capitol Hill, but no less true. Like Riordan, McCain got used to being able to make a too-salty joke, or too-perfect anecdote, because the press was mostly amused and/or actively wanted to protect the guy from himself. This leads to bad habits, especially in the age of YouTube, and is one of many reasons why the Straight Talk Express is no longer a rolling press conference. But more than just malaprops, there are chunks of the McCain biography, including and especially the Vietnam chapter, that are just flat inconsistent and have never been fully examined journalistically. And it's not just the non-"pivotal" stuff like the cross-in-the-dirt story, but fundamental experiences like McCain's prison suicide attempt, which has a variety of different tellings and timelines in different settings.

5) Seriously, are we gonna argue over the timeline of a guy's suicide attempt after having been tortured to the point of confession in a Vietnamese prison? This one's pretty self-explanatory.

6) Anyone running for president automatically loses the benefit of the doubt. This one should be too.

If you'd rather read about what kind of president the guy would actually make, there's a new paperback (with fresh new afterword from the author!) I can recommend.

NEXT: Relax, We're Only Assessing You

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  1. Speaking of Mother Theresa, I recommend everyone to watch the Penn and Teller “Bullshit” episode “Holier than Thou.” Think you can find it on Youtube. Frankly, I don’t think the McCain’s would even want Mother Theresa to have any role in the adoption of their daughter.

  2. Good post, Matt. I really enjoyed it. Memory is funny.

    Like Riordan, McCain got used to being able to make a too-salty joke, or too-perfect anecdote, because the press was mostly amused and/or actively wanted to protect the guy from himself. This leads to bad habits, especially in the age of YouTube, and is one of many reasons why the Straight Talk Express is no longer a rolling press conference.

    That was only eight years ago.

  3. Well, shit. Now we have to conceive of the McCains not as cylons, but as an actual, human family. The drinking, the lies, the stories on repeat…or is that just my family?

  4. You mean the dark-skinned little McCain girl was really adopted? That’s not what Bush/Rove were saying in 2000.

    Next! — Obama has fathered black baby! How did Corsi miss this?

  5. Matt Welch on the issue: “McCain possibly got screwed up with his past, so that is the reason why sometimes he mixes up the truth”

    Digg.com headline about the issue: “McCain has been CAUGHT LYING about his daughter! Click here to learn why this man SHOULD NOT be president! The MAINSTREAM MEDIA DOES NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THIS!”

  6. Here’s an idea: instead of posts like this – the same type of posts that almost everyone else writes – how about something that’s worthwhile, that will help people, and will also make Reason look less bad?

    That would consist of taking a specific McCain or BHO idea and discussing it in depth, bringing in experts from across the spectrum to debate what’s wrong with it, what’s missing, what they’re lying about, and so on.

    Since Reason is supposedly a site about policy – and not just a lukewarm ripoff of BoingBoing – that should be a natural. Right?

  7. Well, shit. Now we have to conceive of the McCains not as cylons, but as an actual, human family. The drinking, the lies, the stories on repeat…or is that just my family?

    Uhh, Dagny, cylons drink, and they certainly lie. You’ll note that that particular cyclon, who looks a lot like a certain presidential candidate, also…ahem…”rid” himself of his first wife when she became inconvenient.

    Maybe your family are cyclons? Is your nickname Boomer?

  8. Jonathan,
    You missed this part.

    The McCains have a history of lying.

    They’re not even good. If the Clintons had a stolen recipe, they’d use an old Joy of Cooking or a Betty Crocker recipe. Something that would be plausibly used by your mom or grandma. Stealing from the Food Network is just lazy.

  9. how can a half white half african president be considered “black”?

  10. I have misremembered a great many things during my life, but none of them have involved inserting Mother Theresa into events in which she took no part.

  11. Epi,

    Well, that spoiler was deserved since I exposed myself as the BSG neophyte that I am. There’s really no excuse for my lateness, seeing that it was actually filmed in my hometown (the pretty shots of Caprica with the concrete pillars and the square pond? That was the quad at my uni, SFU).

    Come to think of it, my family must be cylons. Now it all makes sense…

  12. the stories on repeat…

    Not to mention “all this has happened before, and will happen again.”

    Dagny has inadvertently confirmed McCain as a Cylon par excellence.

  13. Come to think of it, my family must be cylons. Now it all makes sense…

    We may have found the 12th model.

    Dagny has inadvertently confirmed McCain as a Cylon par excellence.

    Having McCain be one of the final five is not comforting.

  14. You’ll note that that particular cyclon, who looks a lot like a certain presidential candidate…

    Minus the awesome Canadian accent, of course.

  15. I just checked and something like 80-85% or more of the cylons are played by Canadians. This means something, and it’s not good.

  16. It’s funny that Cindy is making up stuff to connect the McCains to Mother Teresa when they are more closely connected in fact. When the man who prosecuted Charles Keating contacted Mommy T to let her know that the millions of dollars Keating had donated to her organization was, most likely, stolen from the retirement savings of old people, and asked that she return at least some of it, he never heard back from her or any of her representatives. She was a sick, sick woman in so many ways.

  17. I just checked and something like 80-85% or more of the cylons are played by Canadians. This means something, and it’s not good.

    Well, the female cylons (that I know of!) tend to be fairly hot, so at least it says something about the attractiveness of Canadian women.

    (That’s right, focus on the pretty girls and ignore our evil plan…)

  18. it says something about the attractiveness of Canadian women

    Can’t argue with that. However, they all seem to want to become Americans, which works out for me. Unless of course, they’re cylons…

    (must…not…get…distracted)

  19. I just checked and something like 80-85% or more of the cylons are played by Canadians. This means something, and it’s not good.

    Lorne Green tribute?

  20. how can a half white half african president be considered “black”?

    If you had parents who were both albinos born and raised in the Caucasus mountains, but came out with the same skin color as Obama, I think you’d know the answer.

    Crazy as it seems, most bigots don’t ask for a family history before discriminating against someone.

  21. “Seriously, are we gonna argue over the timeline of a guy’s suicide attempt after having been tortured to the point of confession in a Vietnamese prison?”

    According to Bush Administration guidelines, McCain was not, in fact, tortured. To suggest that he was means that you hate America and the troops.

    Also, the fact that he broke under not-torture means he doesn’t have what it takes to be president.

  22. Obama is running his ad on John McCain’s confusion on how many houses he has. My understanding is that this ad will be running in all 57 states.

  23. Holy shit, it is absolutely amazing the volume of anti-McCain crap that is produced by this site. This site goes days and days without publishing a single negative thing about Barack Obama, but can’t go five fucking minutes without criticizing McCain. As I have asked several times already, when is this site finally going to quit fucking around and endorse Obama for president?

  24. Bottom line:
    The McCains rescued a Bangladesh girl and adopted her.
    Obama’s half brother lives in a hut in Nairobi on less than a dollar a month.

  25. You work that ref, B! You work him!

  26. I am deeply disturbed by this ‘Mother Teresa convinced Cindi to adopt’ story. The adoption story in itself is great. It does not need to be enhanced or made to sound better. I applaud the McCains for adopting a girl from Bangladesh. I cannot do that. Not many people (even with the means) can do that. But the fact that they added Mother Teresa to the story tells a lot about them. It seems to me that John McCain is trying too hard to sell himself to people of faith. I am a religious person but I don’t like being manipulated on the basis of faith.

    I also was bothered by John McCain’s inability to be completely honest at Rick Warren’s Faith Based Forum. Warren’s first question was “How was the cone of silence for you?” John McCain’s answer was “I was trying to listen through the walls”. Why didn’t he say that he was late and that he spent 25 minutes in the car and the last 35 minutes in the cone of silence. He led everyone to believe that he was in the cone of silence all the time during Obama’s interview. Why he could not be upfront about it? It would not have hurt him one bit. In fact most people would respect him even more for telling the complete truth. He was in a church, for Christ’s sake!

    I want to take John McCain at his words. But incidents like these are making my doubts bigger. People can easily spot someone who is faking to be religious or faking to care about religion.

  27. B, for the umpteenth time:

    Matt Welch recently wrote a major book about McCain. He wrote the book before McCain became the GOP nominee. So he’s one of the “go to” guys for things about John McCain, it’s the subject he’s immersed himself in and what he tends to write about.

    Matt Welch also happens to be one of the 10 or so regular contributors here.

    So, I mean, c’mon, do the math. Of course there are more McCain posts than Obama posts, and as both major parties are not exactly beloved by libertarians of course that means there are more negative posts about McCain than Obama. There’s nothing nefarious going on here.

  28. You know what just hit me?

    For all of the B’s whining about the horrible, unfair treatment of John McCain on this site, he never actually tries to show that any of the posts he objects to are false.

    It’s just, LEAVE JOHN MCCAIN ALONE! If you want to go after John McCain, you’ll have to go through B!

  29. I question the premise of this attack on McCain.

    The notion is that he and his wife changed their story to bring Mother Teresa into the decision to adopt their child in order to impress the religious right.

    First, why os it not more impressive to adopt on one’s own initiative, rather than at the behest o fMother teresa?

    Secondly, are evangelicals impressed by Catholic nuns? I didn’t know that.

    And perhaps most importantly, who says this was a “lie” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to deceive?

    McCain told the story at the Saddleback forum without Mother teresa – sort of a lost pander, yes?

    In interviews this year with ABC and NewsWeek Cindy told the story without Mother Teresa.

    In a campaign flyer from January the campaign told the story without Mother Teresa.

    The only *direct* quote of either McCain invoking Mother Teresa comes from a reporter who filed stories with the Daily Telegraph and an Aussie paper. Every other version is a reporter paraphrase.

    The website could be an over-eager staffer; does anyone really think it was run by John?

    The rest may just be reporter error or trail fatigue. But the notion that there was some sort of a plan to consistently embellish this story is not supported.

  30. Milpas:

    Bottom line:

    Cindy McCain cut off her half sister financially the day of their father’s funeral. You know, that half sister who was abandoned by her horndog daddy who cheated on his first wife with Cindy’s Mom after returning from war. Cindy married her daddy in every way.

    Obama’s father was also a douche who abandoned him and his Mom the same way McCain abandoned Carol. McCain is just like Obama’s dad! & Cindy’s Dad.

    Obama’s father produced half white & African kids from China to Kenya. BO is not responsible for those many kids.

  31. Tom:

    Stop reasoning. What kind of website do you think this is?

    Umm, nevermind.

  32. The first time I heard McCain make his “live long enough” pro-American French president crack (during the Republican primary debates last winter), I was charmed. The second time, not so much. The third time, slightly irritated. The fourth time, embarrassed. How many more times will he repeat it? Is it an age thing, like your father or grandfather repeating the same story over and over?

  33. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again. Why and how can a libertarian style magazine endorse a Marxist Socialist, government expansionist?

  34. So Matt, have you been vetted yet for being McCain’s veep?

  35. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again. Why and how can a libertarian style magazine endorse a Marxist Socialist, government expansionist?

    You’d have to first establish that your ridiculous premise is correct.

    Reason does not generally endorse Republicans or Democrats, and especially not these two. Absorb the answer, and try again.

    And stop using Tiny’s name in vain.

  36. Why and how can a libertarian style magazine endorse a Marxist Socialist, government expansionist?

    I didn’t know Reason was endorsing McCain. I am disappointed.

  37. how can a half white half african president be considered “black”?

    Ever heard of the “one drop” rule? To this day, to look black or blackish is to be be black.

  38. That’s not the one drop rule. The one drop rule was invented to account for people who DIDN’T look black.

    “One Drop Rule” is competing with “socialist” to be the term most commonly used incorrectly in the comment threads.

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