The Honest Republican?

by Dan Benbow on April 26, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: With John McCain’s recent appearance on the Daily Show, Beyond Chron readers should be interested to read about his true colors.

He stands with his waders submerged in mud above the article title “Prisoner of Conscience,” clad in beat up old blue jeans, a blue denim shirt under a green hunting vest, a black baseball cap on his head. To his left is a fishing pole, perched on a rock pointing away; at his feet his loyal springer spaniel looks with master directly into the camera. He is everyman. He is Republican Senator John McCain, a.k.a. Straight Talkin’ McCain, and he is running for president.

In the opening paragraphs of “Prisoner” the writer says of his subject: “In an age of pre-fab, blow-dried, plasticized politicians, McCain remains palpably, pungently human.” The burning question of the 10,000-word love letter in February’s Vanity Fair is: does John McCain possess the guile necessary to be a successful candidate? And would McCain even want the presidency if he has to sell his soul to get it?

Throughout his 24 years in Congress, McCain has gained a reputation for speaking his mind, consequences be damned, often in opposition to the Republican Party line of the moment. McCain has bucked the GOP – sometimes loudly – on gun show loopholes, lobbying reform, HMO reform, campaign finance reform, stem cell research, climate change, gay marriage, amnesty for illegal immigrants, seeking compensation from tobacco companies and upholding the filibuster. In a party long run with and on authoritarian discipline, this is a novelty that the press can’t get enough of.

In his 2000 presidential run, McCain rambled around the early primary states aboard a bus famously dubbed the Straight Talk Express for his direct attacks on the ideological orthodoxies of both major parties and the extraordinary level of access given to the media, a way for McCain’s cash-strapped campaign to get free and favorable press coverage.

McCain giddily attacked the Republican establishment candidate George W. Bush from the rhetorical center and clobbered Bush in the vital early primary state of New Hampshire by almost twenty points, only to get buried in South Carolina by an evangelical militia backed by a shitstorm of slanderous attack ads. Along with the above-ground assault were whisper campaigns claiming that McCain was a nutcase due to his five years in captivity as a POW in Vietnam, that his wife was a drug addict (she had had an addiction to pills following surgery), and that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock (the McCains have an adopted Bangladeshi daughter.)

Bush’s victory in South Carolina was the beginning of the end for McCain, who marched on to Pat Robertson’s home town and denounced Bush as “a Pat Robertson Republican” and Robertson and Bush supporter Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.”

While McCain lost the primary, he piqued interest among a substantial block of independent voters thereafter known as “McCainiacs.” More importantly, McCain won the media, whom he later referred to as “my base,” which was not much of a stretch. Opposite Al Gore’s funereal seminars and George W. Bush’s scripted platitudes, McCain’s shake and bake liveliness and equal opportunity willingness to upend both major party platforms cemented a reputation for integrity that has become conventional wisdom in the national political dialogue. Our lazy media corps love labels that save them from doing their homework (i.e. the tedious and unsexy task of sifting through voting records to see what candidate X is really about), and the labels attached to McCain are uniformly flattering: “maverick”, “insurgent”, “rebel”, or “icon.” The press’s favorite adjective for McCain is “defiant.” McCain’s autobiographies play on this handy image with titles such as Character is Destiny, Worth the Fighting For and Why Courage Matters.

From early 2001, McCain became the media’s go-to guy in the Senate, as he was quick with a quotable quote and often likely to mix it up with someone, thereby creating an artificial controversy guaranteed to rattle around the hollow media chamber for a day or two until the next flavor-of-the day came along. Still smarting from Team Bush’s manhandling in the presidential race, McCain leveled populist attacks on Bush’s tax cuts (“I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us”), 40% of which went to millionaires, and in July 2001, a McCain aide talked to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle about the possibility of McCain leaving the Republican Party and caucusing with the Democrats. The assumed benefits would’ve been the committee chairmanship of his choice, a louder megaphone through which to project his voice, and revenge on Bush. Then came 9-11.

When it comes to picking presidents, many Americans favor instinct to empiricism, reducing presidential elections to popularity contests. Despite the dire and dramatic events of the past few years, 55% of respondents in a March AP poll of American voters valued subjective personality traits such as honesty and integrity more than objective observations on policy positions and credentials.

The most obvious shortcoming of this mode of assessment is that politicians are professional chameleons: they thrive and survive by adapting to shifts in public opinion, while concealing that they are doing so. Judging a politician by their honesty is like tipping a hooker on the sound of her sweet nothings. Moreover, when most Americans rely on corporate network news, content-starved newspapers with bite-size AP dispatches, and cable programs that revolve around horse race stories and Kabuki quibbles, public perception of who’s telling the truth will often be out of line with factual reality, sometimes wildly.

Playing on this, George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, like many Republican campaigns before it, ran on a ‘character-first’ platform. Messy details about the far-reaching results of Bush’s decisions were discarded in favor of a contrived dialectic positing Bush’s stubborn resolve against John Kerry’s alleged weakness of will. Bush, who had pulled strings to get into the National Guard and then ditched his commitment, was strong, firm, and constant as the tides, while Kerry, who had volunteered for service in Vietnam and gone on to win three Purple Hearts, one Bronze Star and one Silver Star, was weak and indecisive. The subtext was that a president should be respected and rewarded for certitude, no matter how terrible his or her judgment.

Though Karl Rove & Associates had put a serious hurting on John McCain in 2000, McCain was only too happy to bolster this charade with the knowledge that loyalty to the king would go a long way toward giving him first dibs on the fundraisers and campaign staff from Bush’s well-oiled machine in 2008, while helping to repair McCain’s image among rabid right-wing Republican primary voters.

In a tv spot, McCain said that Bush, the same president who had: 1) stepped into office on the backs of minorities his brother had purposely disenfranchised in Florida; 2) done as little as possible to stop 9/11; then 3) relentlessly manipulated the fear spawned by 9/11 to start a disastrous invasion of Iraq under false pretenses in order to 4) seize Iraq’s oil and commandeer the framing discussions of close 2002 senate races while 5) accusing opponents of being unpatriotic, had “led with great moral clarity and firm resolve.”

At the GOP convention in New York City, held unusually late to milk the third anniversary of 9/11 to maximum advantage, McCain added that Bush “has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time…He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we.” Lest anyone question his newfound genuflection before President Bush, in September of ’06 McCain told attendees at a dinner hosted by The American Spectator that “Campaigning with George W. Bush was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

In late September of 2005, as the city of New Orleans lay in wake following Hurricane Katrina, John McCain held a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee in which he hit his desk as he doled out heavy-handed cross-examination to the central witness: “You were told more than five months ago to come up with a tougher proposal. Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it…Don’t you understand that this is an issue of transcendent importance that you should have acted on months ago.”

The source of McCain’s outrage and indignation? The most corrupt administration since Richard Nixon? An invasion of choice that had started a civil war in Iraq? The most extreme income inequality since the Great Depression? 45,000,000 Americans with no health insurance? The skyrocketing costs of a college education?

Nope. Steroids in sports.

Along with the show trial hearings, McCain (who likes to refer to himself as a “limited government conservative”) proposed urgent federal legislation to regulate drug tests in sports, only to let the (non) issue go a couple months later when Major League Baseball made token concessions.

Earlier in the same year, as bloodshed and chaos grew in Iraq, the Republican Party showed its respect for the sanctity of human life by trying to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been in a vegetative state for fifteen years following cardiac arrest. McCain backed Republicans’ attempt to force Schiavo’s husband to keep his wife on life support, quality of life and multiple court decisions be damned. When the public saw through the publicity stunt, the GOP brought their ace in in a pinch to do damage control. Of the breathtakingly crass sketch, McCain told ABC with grandfatherly earnestness: “I think that the motivation of my colleagues is that we want to give this young woman’s family a chance to care for her as long as she lives.”

Both incidents demonstrated the decoy tactics the Republican Party has used for decades, from McCarthyism forward, to distract the American public from more important matters, including in this day and age the fact that most of us are working longer hours for less pay and shrinking benefits while the rich gorge on ever bigger portions of America’s economic pie. McCain’s response to our fraying social contract has been to oppose unions that would reverse these trends at every step, to back Bush’s plan to privatize (i.e. draw and quarter) Social Security, which would do little to solve America’s retirement problems (it could potentially make them worse), and to support brutal cuts to the tiny portion of Congress’ budget that goes to discretionary spending programs such as Headstart, school lunches, childcare subsidies, infant nutrition programs for the economically disadvantaged and other programs that actually help people. Healthcare? McCain doesn’t talk about it. An urban agenda? McCain doesn’t have one.

While expecting sacrifice from the poor, McCain has recently reversed his opposition to Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. In November of 2005 he told Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal: “I just thought [Bush’s tax cut] was too tilted to the wealthy, and I still do…We have a wealth gap in this country, and that worries me.” Yet in recent months, McCain has gotten over petty concerns about bloated budget deficits and basic economic fairness and now supports making these huge windfalls to investors, inheritors of wealth, and other beneficiaries of America’s 21st century brand of predatory capitalism permanent, just as he seeks deep pockets for the most expensive fundraising season in world history.

McCain followed his Shakespearean performances in 2005 with more partisan water-carrying in 2006, when he made 346 campaign appearances for Republican candidates, endorsing many who were to the right of Genghis Khan, and with the 2008 presidential campaign already well underway, McCain’s carefully crafted image of independence proves increasingly farcical as he panders time and again to the hard right, though sometimes quietly.

At the end of February, on the same night he announced his candidacy on Letterman (generating the autopilot McCain-as-maverick headline “In Newly Unusual Way, McCain Says He’ll Run”), McCain was the only Republican presidential candidate to skip the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a yearly meeting of conservative activists. McCain’s spokesman cited a scheduling conflict, but it later came out that McCain’s people had tried to set up a media-free private reception for attendees, a way of appeasing the right without doing so publicly.

CPAC rejected the offer, but as McCain’s spokesman pointed out, his candidate’s 20-year voting record should be more than enough to bring right-wing Republicans into lockstep with McCain’s bid. For while McCain gets major mileage out of his handful of differences with the GOP (on issues on which Republicans are out of step with public opinion), he votes with his party more than 90% of the time. A study of McCain’s votes in 2005 by professor Keith Poole found McCain to be the 4th most conservative senator in Congress, while ranked him as the second most conservative senator for the whole 109th.

McCain has buttressed this distinction with craven 180 degree turns to the right. Though McCain had said in 2004 that a GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans,” he did television ads in favor of a measure that banned gay marriage at the state level in 2006. Though McCain said in 1999 that he supported Roe v. Wade (“…I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations”), he now says flatly that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Jerry Falwell, once labeled an “agent of intolerance,” now gets on famously with Mr. McCain, who gave the commencement speech at Falwell’s fundamentalist Liberty University in May of 2006. Falwell returned the favor by inviting McCain to the Religious Broadcaster’s Convention (held in 2007) and offering up Brett O’Donnell, Liberty University’s debate coach, for McCain’s communications team.

As he’s crisscrossed the country on the weathered Straight Talk Express Bus, McCain has traveled back in time to a land of back alley abortions and legal machine guns, where public funds go to the teaching of intelligent design and abstinence education, big powerful weapons blow missiles out of the sky, and Cuba policy is stuck like groundhog’s day in 1961.

Against this backdrop, John McCain recently made a trip to Miami to speak before a group of right-wing Cubans, including veterans of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In the speech, McCain decried the rise of ‘socialism’ in South America, or more accurately, the election of leftists supportive of the redistribution of economic spoils to long-exploited indigenous people and opposed to US-imposed free trade agreements. A surprisingly blunt AP dispatch mentioned that McCain “said all the right things about Cuba for [the] audience,” including stating his opposition to ending the embargo until Cuba has free elections and basic human rights, and releases all political prisoners. McCain’s stance on behalf of freedom would be believable and maybe even noble if only he could reserve the same degree of indignation for vastly more oppressive U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but of course their expatriates don’t control 25 electoral votes.

As the 2008 campaign heats up at this sad, early date, the question is not whether McCain can find within himself the guile to compete, but just how low he is willing to go. Down the campaign stretch in 2006, Democrat Harold Ford of Tennessee led his opponent Bob Corker in most polls, giving Ford the potential to become the first African-American to win a Senate seat in the Deep South since Reconstruction. As ever, when backed against the wall, the GOP aimed low with character assassination and innuendo, with an ad in which people “off the street” make crass statements (ex: “terrorists need their privacy”) in defense of views falsely attributed to Ford. The implication of the ad was that the safe-as-milk Ford, one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, was out of touch with mainstream values.

Playing to the most deep-seated, residual white Southern racism, the ad was roundly condemned, by John McCain among others. Terry Nelson (known for his connections to disgraced former GOP operator Tom Delay), who birthed the ad for the Republican National Committee, was fired by Wal-Mart, for whom he worked as a consultant. But the ad worked – Corker went ahead in the race and never looked back – and Nelson got a promotion not a month later when McCain hired him as his campaign manager. (Joining Nelson will be the ad firm of Stevens Reed Curcio & Pothold, who produced the notorious Swift Boat ads from the 2004 campaign, which McCain said at the time were “dishonest and dishonorable.”)

The one issue that has most contributed to McCain’s image as a man of unshakable principle is campaign finance reform. Todd Purdum’s sycophantic “Prisoner of Conscience” channels this conventional wisdom with the blithe assertion that McCain “has always loathed the cozy and corrupt culture of Washington D.C.” Though McCain has been in front on many of the baby steps to clean up Congress, in the eighties he was involved in the Keating 5 scandal, in which he engaged in a quid pro quo with a crooked S & L chairman whose failing S & L cost taxpayers two billion dollars, and McCain wasn’t above using his recent Commerce Committee chairmanship to steer favors for contributors. Purdum gets away with this distortion because DC’s pay-to-play culture is off limits to mainstream political discussion.

Much more in line with the mainstream media’s antiseptic national narrative is the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill which banned soft money in federal elections. McCain deserves some credit for being one of the only people in his party to support the measure, but the truth is that McCain-Feingold is a toothless ‘reform’ measure of the kind loved in D.C. – a great way for politicians to prance before the cameras and claim to be concerned about an issue that is rotting our republic while actually doing very little. If McCain-Feingold really had bite, George W. Bush, second to none in trading dirty deeds for dirty money, never would have signed it.

In the past, McCain could be counted on to cry from the rooftops about campaign finance (ex: “The voices of average Americans have been drowned out by the deafening racket of campaign cash”), but now that he’s focused on becoming president, he’s singing a different tune, one much more harmonious with his current motives. In 2006 McCain supported a measure to make 527 donations illegal, but upon receiving flack from conservative grass-roots groups, he backed off, and in fact has taken a good deal of money from 527 leaders and organizers, according to a recent Washington Post article by investigative reporter John Solomon. The same article pointed out in detail that the long-time crusader has received money from lobbyists – a source of many of his rhetorical fusillades in the past – and a good number of Bush’s biggest fundraisers, including those who McCain criticized in the past for their lack of ethics and pollution of the political system.

The Post article that showed the gap between the mythological Citizen McCain and the shifty candidate McCain was one of the biggest signs that the media’s refusal to question the eternally earnest senator’s sincerity may be at an end. On signs of a breakup, McCain responded ferociously, calling Solomon’s truth serum the “worst hit job that has ever been done in my entire political career,” while failing to cite any factual inaccuracies.

McCain’s twenty fundraisers in March, and the 20 he is doing in April fail to make him any more of a money-grubber than the other candidates, but they do signify that he ought to lose the soapbox that has so long been a part of his act, and give us some real straight talk. We don’t need heroes. We just need someone that can clean up the mess.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is copyrighted by Dan Benbow. An unabridged version appears at

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