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.