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.