Whatever it Takes

As the Sarah Palin choice epitomizes, John McCain has been willing to sacrifice any principle to become president.


The first thing to know about John McCain's five best-selling books is that, at a minimum, at least four of them were expressly political campaign acts. Faith of My Fathers, his Vietnam memoir, was timed perfectly in the fall of 1999 to coincide with his first run for president. As the Arizona Republic reported in May 1999, "Campaign aides believe McCain's book tour, and his frequent televised appearances about the war in Yugoslavia and other issues, means they won't have to spend as much money as some candidates on paid political advertisements. Why pay for publicity, McCain aides reason, if you can get it for free?"

His 2002 political memoir, Worth the Fighting For, would have been the perfect vehicle for launching a Bull Moose-style third-party or independent phase of his career, but September 11 intervened just before his deadline, so he had to settle for burnishing his reputation as the Republican that independents and Democrats love most. Last year's book, Hard Call, was a Profiles in Courage-style collection designed explicitly to link McCain in voters' minds with various historical heroes (Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, etc.) who had the guts to make risky or unpopular decisions when they knew it to be in their nation's best interests.

But if you really want to understand McCain's selection of little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the first female vice presidential nominee in GOP history, the most instructive literary act to consult is his little-discussed October 2005 tome, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember.

What was John McCain doing in the fall of 2005? Preparing the political ground for his final shot at the White House. What did this task require? Two things: That he attempt to position himself long ahead of time as the established front-runner and successor to George W. Bush, and that in order to do so he repair relations with the same religious right he so intemperately accused of being "agents of intolerance" back in February 2000.

The latter effort involved the types of showy reconciliations the combustible McCain has long been known for, especially with alleged agent of intolerance Jerry Falwell himself (who extracted a promise from McCain in November 2005 that should some judge force one state to recognize gay marriage from another state, he would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage…even though in July 2004 McCain had called such an amendment "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans").

Character Is Destiny was the book-length version of McCain's suck-up to conservative Christians, and like many of the senator's more contortionate displays of pandering, it was just awkward as hell. "God has given us…life, shown us how to use it, but left it to us to dispose of as we choose," he and co-author Mark Salter write in the first paragraph of the book's introduction. From there it is a festival of capital-H He and Him and His when discussing the capital-S Savior, a subject that comes up pretty frequently considering the first chapter is about Christian martyrs Sir Thomas More ("The life on earth of honest Thomas More was ended. His glory had just begun"), the third is about Joan of Arc ("She raised her voice to heaven, calling out to her saints and her Savior"), and the rest is sprinkled with bits on Mothers Antonia and Theresa, various Puritans, a Vietnamese Catholic, and on and on.

Keep in mind we're talking about a guy who in his previous (and highly enjoyable) memoirs wrote with evident pride about his father being nicknamed "Good Goddamn McCain," cheerfully described more acts of youthful indiscretion than most of us are lucky to live through, and characterized theo-con Paul Weyrich as "a pompous, self-serving son of a bitch."

Going from that voice to one that writes the following about Charles Darwin, "It is hard for me to appreciate the history he made without seeing in its accomplishment the hand of providence….God is not indifferent to our suffering nor has He left us bereft of hope," is about as jarring as, well, going from saying that "Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality" (2003), to saying that a McCain administration would focus on "creating new markets for farmers by providing incentives to create low carbon auto fuels like ethanol" (2007).

If you are, as John McCain has been in his writings, prepared to alter your entire personality in the greater cause of your own political ambitions, then previously ironclad policies that were once dressed up in the highest of moral dudgeon are liable to be as malleable as butter in a microwave. Thus his 2004 opposition to tax cuts ("why do we have to have tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans when the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans is growing?") becomes his 2006 vote to make those tax cuts permanent. His 2002 support for encouraging condom use to stop the spread of HIV becomes his pathetic 2007 confusion over whether contraceptives can even halt the disease. His $1.10 federal tax on cigarettes in 1998 ("perhaps the health of children should be a greater concern to my party"!) becomes 2008's "I'm not for anybody's taxes."

McCain's main value proposition and electoral conceit is that he talks straight and puts his country first, ahead of mere political considerations. So much so that the very slogan of the Republican National Convention is Country First, and he'll be driving there with Palin on the Straight Talk Express.

But if ethanol was bad for the country in 2003—and it was—it sure as hell is bad for the country in 2007. The only things that have changed since then are the price of corn (through the roof), and McCain's desperate need to finish halfway decently in the Iowa caucuses (ditto). A man willing to flip-flop so brazenly may rightly be described as a "politician," but not as any kind of preternatural straight-shooter who always puts country first.

So it is with the nomination of Sarah Palin, a move that was politically audacious, modestly encouraging to libertarians and those of us who enjoy unusual characters in political life…and utterly at odds with McCain's central campaign contention that he's running to defeat "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century—radical Islamic extremists."

Sarah Palin is many interesting things, but she is decidedly not anyone who has done a single thing in her life indicating preparation to lead any kind of "transcendent" foreign policy challenge. In an election that will be fought over the issue of war, where McCain has noisily accused Barack Obama of putting politics before country on the issue of most import, it is McCain who is guilty of just that charge with the selection of perhaps the least-qualified candidate for vice-commander in chief in modern U.S. history. Choosing Palin makes for potentially great politics, but it makes a mockery of McCain's claim to be the national security adult in this race, especially considering that if he's elected, he'll be the oldest first-term president in American history.

Would John McCain, a genuine American hero, place his own political ambitions ahead of the good of the country? Indeed he has, at least according to an authority as knowledgeable on the subject as John McCain. In all five of his books he repeatedly warns us of precisely that tendency. "The worst decisions I have made, not just in politics but over the course of my entire life," he writes in Hard Call, "have been those I made to seek an advantage primarily or solely for myself."

Who benefits more from the selection of Sarah Palin, the United States of America or John McCain? Time may tell a different story, but on the eve of the Republican Convention, it doesn't seem like that hard of a call at all.

Matt Welch is the editor in chief of reason and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

NEXT: Palin Baby Mama Scuttlebutt

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  1. Yes McCain could have selected George Patton or Dwight Eisenhower for VP but would he have won the election? One might argue that losing the election and putting the Government into the Stalinist Obabama’s hands would be a bad thing for our foreign policy.
    Governor Palin is the best possible choice for a win in November therefore the best possible choice for foreign policy strength.

  2. Profiles in Courage-style

    Does that mean he didn’t actually write it? (Or was that Jack’s other book?)

    Keep in mind we’re talking about […]

    I don’t find those contradictions. If you do, that’s your problem and not his.

    “why do we have to have tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans when the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans is growing?”

    Is this what he really said? If so, here’s a good reason not to vote for him: economic illiteracy. Palin may help in that department.

    support for encouraging condom use to stop the spread of HIV

    What does the federal government have to do with this kind of thing? Ad Council wastes of moneyspots?

    and utterly at odds with McCain’s central campaign contention that he’s running to defeat “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century-radical Islamic extremists.”

    I didn’t know what that meant until the next paragraph. She is an example of a certain type of person, with certain convictions, made high-profile. That seems like a useful weapon against Islam and its attached totalitarian state.

    least-qualified candidate for vice-commander in chief

    So is that better or worse than least-qualified commander? The article doesn’t expound.

  3. I think there is good to Palin. I really like her proven ability to stand up to corruption within her own party. It’s what I’ve always liked best about McCain.

    On the other hand, while I’ve already been accused of being an elitist, I’m disturbed by her low level of educational attainment, that of a bachelors degree. I have not taken the time to look at the biography of of the other governors, but I would be very suprised if her educational attainment is not the lowest or within the bottom five of state executives in the nation.

    Now, of course there is more to any person than the sheepskin on, or not on, their wall. But all other things being equal I would think someone who had a terminal degree, such as a PhD, MD, or JD was simply a better bet than someone who had less edcuational accomplishments than the average elementary school teacher for an important position. A BS in journalism from U of Idaho is slim pickings…

  4. MNG, JDs are way too common in the race. Don’t wish more on us. The two MDs I know politically are quasi-libertarian OBGYNs from Texas and, unfortunately, going nowhere.

    But she ran the fishing enterprise for a while. I recall a certain McGovern turning a bit economically literate after a failed run for president and a successful run of his own business.

    (Of course I won’t mention my personal experience with those who completed post-grad degrees except to say that they don’t mean what you seem to think they mean.)

  5. Who benefits more from the selection of Sarah Palin, the United States of America or John McCain?

    I think it is a win for both.

  6. Character Is Destiny was the book-length version of McCain’s suck-up to conservative Christians

    Thank you.

    Now he has one-upped himself with Palin – as Matt Welch contends.

    Does McCain have any “core values” at all?

  7. Yeah, well file this under the category of ZOMG! Who knew a politician would put his own personal ambition before the good of the country? Reagan? Clinton? The Bush clan? The Kennedys? It’s really a pretty long list.

    It’s a much shorter list of men who actually put their country ahead of their ambition. I’d say that aside from Washington, Adams (John) and Lincoln, you’d be hard pressed to find many others that fit the description.

    Palin is an interesting choice and I suspect it has more to do with her “maverick” qualities than anything else. Qualified? To be the veep, yes. To be President? Probably not. But unless McCain keels over in the first 30 days of his administration, it wouldn’t matter. After then I suspect she could hold her own with the help of the cabinet. Given the scutint she’ll be under, she’ll be better prepared than Truman was when he became President. I suspect she’ll at least be kept in the loop, which Truman wasn’t.

    But I’m still voting for Bob Barr. And there’s no way in hell Wayne Allen Root is qualified to be President. So the Veep doesn’t really matter to me.

    Several years ago, someone wrote a book called “Bland Ambition” which had small bios of all of this nation’s VP’s (including Jefferson Davis’). What was remarkable about them was…nothing. Other than the few who went on to be President, even a political/history buff like me couldn’t recognize most of the names.

  8. Woodrow Wilson is the only President who had a PHD. I think that’s an arguement to exclude someone with a PHD from obtaining the Office of the Presidency.

  9. I wish it were Palin running and not McCain, personally.

  10. It’s a Game Theory exercise.

    McCain is trailing in the polls, so his best chance is to adopt a strategy that is the opposite of Obama’s.

    Republicans have a ‘last mover advantage’, because their Convention is later.

    Had McCain been ahead in the polls, the smart move would have been to choose a ‘safe bet’ VP like Obama’s Joe Biden.

    Just because McCain is an Asshole, doesn’t mean he’s stupid.

  11. Wow, its fascinating to see this ridiculous gush of love for Sarah Palin from the Reasonati, I mean come on, this is a joke right? Mayor of a town of 7,000+, gov. of the 47th most populus state in the country, anti-abortion in every case including rape and incest, supporter of creationism, a person in bed(literally and figuratively with the oil companies…Does this all just boil down to the fact that she is attractive???

  12. Oh and I should have mentioned the absolutely perverse tokenism involved here…I would be shocked if anyone could look me in the face and tell me that Palin would have been chosen if she were not a woman! Please. Be. Serious.

  13. There are a lot of things to criticize McCain about. Picking Palin seems like kind of a cheap shot.

    Maybe she doesn’t have the chops to be a decent president if it comes to that. Maybe she does. But Welch’s article doesn’t really address how, from a libertarian POV, Palin would be a bad pick.

    MNG — Get over your infatuation with higher ed, at least for the presidency. One of the worst presidents, Woodrow Wilson, had the most formal education. What counts is intelligence and political views, not schooling. A libertarian with a bachelor’s degree would be far preferable than a hardcore statist warmongering drug warrior Bill-of-Rights-shredder with 5 PhDs.

  14. “There are a lot of things to criticize McCain about. Picking Palin seems like kind of a cheap shot.

    —The thing is I tend to agree with you, but that I think is just the point. In fact it is the entire point of the McCain presidential run, the idea that Obama was not a ‘serious’ choice. Let’s face it, people don’t like McCain better as a person than Obama, they don’t like his policies better than Obama’s, so what is the hook for McCain? It is supposed to be his gravitas, his experience, his readiness to take on this supposed ‘existential threat’…this pick flies in the face of all that.

  15. Sorry Matt,

    I don’t buy this argument that it was purely for political purposes (although isn’t any VP pick made for political purposes? I mean, isn’t this politics?) I think McCain and Palin are very compatible from a policy perspective, in the sense that both are rabid reformers who hate pork and government waste.

    It’s also evident that people want change over experience, and Obama undercut his message of change by picking the ultimate insider. In picking a distant outsider and fellow reformer, McCain recalibrated his image to the “maverick” status just when everyone thought he had abandoned it altogether.

    Anyway, to have a VP with the same emphases as the President would be redundant. She also brings executive experience which none of the other ticketeers have, as well as hands on experience dealing with energy issues.

    Also, she’s likely to follow McCain, as opposed to the president following the VP which has been the case with Bush/Cheney and seems likely to become the case with Obama/Biden. What’s the point of yearlong primaries if the President is not running the show? She’ll be a strong advocate and supporter, but everyone knows it’s still McCain’s show.

    Also, can someone tell me how she has any less foreign policy experience than any of the other governors who have been elected president? They were able to get by ok, for the most part. Why all of a sudden is there an assumption that one needs to be elected to federal office to be a good president or VP? Or are people really that short sighted? And why does anyone think legislators make good presidents? And lawyers?

  16. Matt: Not a terribly thoughtful article. It makes me think your publication has devolved more to simply vitriolic critcism. You could do a whole issue on Obama’s marxist foundations and his lack of understanding of america’s founding ideals. But no. Not these days. Reason is no longer the voice of liberty it used to be. It is drifting toward irrelevance.

  17. I was appalled to hear this clip where Sarah Palin laughs when a talk radio announcer calls one of her political rivals “a b**** and a cancer”. The woman referred to is a cancer survivor. If she can do this to a fellow woman, what will she do in office?

    The Anchorage Daily news reported this on January 25th, 2008

  18. Much of the news media, and now Reason too, is reporting that John McCain has gone off-message in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. “Her experience is no greater than that of Obama’s!” What do you do now, John? Like George I tapping Dan Quayle, they believe it to be out of desperation that you have chosen this former beauty queen.

    Excuse me, but didn’t we all once get to know Dan Quayle? Some of us may have worked with Dan Quayle. Dan Quayle may have been a friend of ours. To the New York Times, Reason, and all the others I say, “Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle.” Folks will learn that once she is asked to spell potato[e].

    So, is McCain desperate or is he confident? Are vice-presidential picks now running against presidential picks? I have long had the sense that this country is standing on its head, but when we start comparing the experience of one party’s vice to the other party’s main ego the standing has been too long. We have at last been brought to bear witness to the sight of blood pouring from both ears.

    Perhaps the much greater significance here can only be found between the lines. Whereas Obama’s pick of Joe Biden may demonstrate his lack of confidence and need for help in managing the country, McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin may be telling us that he can do the job all by himself. I think the shrill personalities at MSNBC know that all too well. It does much to explain why they have now begun in earnest to cast McCain as a living dead person. “He is 72, you know, and he has had cancer you know. Do not vote for Dead Man Walking.”

    The country knows Joe Biden, and it soon will begin to get to know Sarah Palin. If Obama should pass on the day after his inauguration, the country will have Biden. When McCain passes on the day after his inauguration, as Keith Olbermann and groupthink believe he will, the country will have Palin. Call me insane and out of touch with reality, but I believe presidents do [not] have to be great. They need only have the management skill and energy drive to be a hockey mom and/or a chief executive of any ordinary state. Can’t someone else manage the federal government other than an emperor?
    Am I right, or have I been put away to stand on my head too long?

    Ron Hoffman

    Rose Hill, KS

  19. Egad, I go away for a year or so and Hit and Run has sunk even below the level of the 2004 election. Never would have thought it possible.

    And I’m with Welch. In my case, McCain lost my respect in the 1980s with the Keating nonsense and he’s done nothing since to regain it. I would never, ever vote for such a man.

  20. @Deena Larsen

    Awwwwww, you poor thing.

  21. galaxy101 @ 7:16pm:

    Let’s face it, […] [people] don’t like his policies better than Obama’s, so what is the hook for McCain?

    Are you sure about that? I may not like McCain’s policies that much, but I like them a lot more than Obama’s. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to vote for McCain, but I’m going to vote against Obama if I’m voting at all.

  22. Apparently, (I am not making this up, but I am getting my info from wikipedia), Theodore Roosevelt V has endorsed Barack Obama.

  23. Apparently, (I am making this up, but I can put my info into wikipedia), Zombie Reagan from the movie V has endorsed Sarah Palin.

  24. Thanks, but I don’t care about a legacy name endorsing the communist.

    I care about Zombie Reagan.

  25. She’s no less experienced than Calvin Coolidge was when he was nominated as a VP candidate.

  26. Thanks, but I don’t care about a legacy name endorsing the communist.

    I guess I have to explain the irony. It isn’t just any old legacy name. McCain idolizes Teddy Roosevelt.

  27. Bleh, he does?

    Seriously, I don’t care much for that populist. Of course, W’s fawning over LBJ kicks up the gag reflex, too.

  28. Is McCain’s VP decision “the selection of perhaps the least-qualified candidate for vice-commander in chief in modern U.S. history”? In time of war, is qualification more a matter of ideology and values than years of experience and formal credentials? Isn’t hunting caribou for food a form of pioneer spirit needed for leadership? Just as McCain’s combat and POW experience must be judged as an important part of his record, shouldn’t Palin’s willingness to send her elder son off to war be judged as a measure of her patriotic commitment? Would you rather follow a commander-in-chief who leads the attack or one who cowers in a bunker? The Obama/Biden ticket is excellent for voters who want socialism, while the McCain/Palin ticket is excellent for voters who want militarism. Obama and McCain are undoubtedly brilliant political operators but both are fiscal saboteurs with Improvised Exponentially-increasing Deficits. Do the voters for welfare, warfare, and K Street walkers need to see Wal-Mart shoppers with wheelbarrows full of federal reserve notes?

  29. As a big fan of Reason, I’m shocked that Matt Welch calls Palin “… the least qualified candidate …” Personally, I find her qualifications superior to McCain, Obama, H. Clinton or Biden. Having actually held a job similar to President (mayor, governor) with a budget and personal experience in a family business (commercial fishing) I find her experience superior to being a politician who only manages a staff and office budget. A mayor/governor doesn’t have the choice of voting present and avoiding the issue as Obama does. As far as foreign policy, someone who accuses the Attorney General of her state of corruption and forces him out of office has the guts to stand up to any foreign despot and tell them what they don’t want to hear. I for one think we need more of that in our foreign policy, instead of the failure it’s been. I’d vote for Palin for president, but since it’s McCain on the ticket, my vote is for Bob Barr. But I’m thankful to McCain for bringing her to the nation’s attention. Perhaps she’ll be our first female president.

  30. in the sense that both are rabid reformers who hate pork and government waste.

    You’re kidding right? Palin shifted all that “Bridge to Nowhere” money over to something else Alaska can suck from the taxpayer teat. And McCain just loooooooooves government waste. Although in his case, American soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars in wartime spending are government waste.

  31. Can someone tell me the *real* state of things when it comes to the “Palin is against big-government” meme?

    It is clear to me that a governor of a state cannot really be 100% against big government, but what is the real track of hers?

    (Personally, if it was 75% anti-big-gov, I would consider her promising for libertarian agenda).

  32. is there some underlining reason why mccain chose palin as vp something maybe about oil?

    who would take over for her as governor maybe
    somebody not willing to drill for oil as soon
    as possible keeping prices for oil high or even maybe spiking the price?

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