McCain Mutiny

WaPo has an interesting profile of John McCain. The lead-in about McCain’s driving style is rather amusing. The substance of the piece is the Senator’s strange role as neither fish nor fowl in an increasingly partisan town.

McCain in Drivers’ Seat

In his 67 years, John Sidney McCain III has survived three plane crashes, all flights he piloted. He has endured, among other things, 51/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, cancer, an almost career-killing scandal and one of the nastiest primary campaigns in GOP history. “This is all so transient,” McCain says. “It could all end tomorrow. My philosophy is just to just go, go like hell. Like Teddy Roosevelt did it. Full-bore.”

The Arizona Republican’s version of full-bore went national in 2000, when his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination nearly wrecked George W. Bush’s juggernaut. McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” — his campaign bus, featuring the candidate’s unplugged and impolitic musings — became a roving political cavalcade. Reporters swooned like schoolgirls, and many haven’t stopped. He has become the exemplar of that exotic political virtue, candor.

It hardly mattered that McCain lost in 2000 — bitterly in the end, and with lasting animosity toward Bush. He somehow has come to embody a now-perished age of bipartisan friendships and philosophies in Washington.

Other colleagues, especially Democrats, came to covet him as a public ally. John Kerry’s latest TV ads feature a photo of him and McCain. Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards fell all over themselves during the Democratic primaries to tout their collaborations with their “good friend John McCain.” In a speech last year, McCain jokingly accused the candidates of “identity theft.”


The [Kerry] running-mate trope is just the latest co-dependent transaction between the media and their good friend McCain. Intrigue is served, ratings rise (when McCain is booked on a talk show). In return, McCain gets attention.

And attention is paramount to his success. He has a sharp nose for outrage and a fast tongue for spreading it, and his maverick star power — born in 2000 and enhanced since — grants him a cachet that transcends traditional political alignments.


McCain has become a political weather system unto himself. He is the smart-mouthed kid from the back of the class, leaving his smarty-pants colleagues to compete for his reflected glory. “You think these guys would keep mentioning my name if I didn’t have this national name recognition?” McCain asks. “No way.”

Norquist distills McCain’s political views to “whatever will get him on TV” and theorizes that McCain suffered withdrawal after getting so much attention in 2000. “He needs to keep reinventing himself, so it becomes like Madonna’s business plan: He always has to do something new to get himself back on the cover of magazines.”

Yep. McCain is an interesting character and, certainly, the suffering he endured in the Hanoi Hilton has earned him the right to be cantankerous. Still, I find that his act has worn thin.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    But you have to admit that a McCain presidency would not have been anywhere near as divisive as the Bush administration has turned out to be, despite the fact that John McCain supports almost all of the top conservative / right positions on the issues. As a knee jerk, slightly left of center voter, I would have supported McCain over Gore for exactly the reasons that he seems to be getting so much press lately, he is a straight shooter and says the things that administration can’t or won’t.

    Despite the fact that Bush also has reinvented himself on a number of issues, flipped flopped, and has done everything every other politician does to maintain power that his supporters continue to fire attacks on the integrity of a guy like McCain. They do this all the while ignoring that fact that Bush is simply not immune to the realities of the current political climate and will also do or say or flip on any issue to get reelected.

    The GOP had a chance in 2000 to nominate a guy like McCain who had more experience and more credentials, and opted for a relative neophyte who has done little on his own in life to warrant the worship he seems to command in some quarters. I don’t get it.

  2. Paul says:

    Reporters swooned like schoolgirls, and many haven’t stopped. He has become the exemplar of that exotic political virtue, candor.

    It is not “candor” that makes reporters flock like schoolgirls. If you have a Republican that bashes other Republicans then you have a Republican the media loves.

    Make that Republican someone who likes to see himself on T.V. more than even Chuckie Shumer and you have John McCain.

  3. Mahnster says:

    I respectfully disagree with your view of a more bipartisan tone if McCain had been elected. Washington is now so ugly that all it takes is an R or D after the president’s name for the other side to froth at the mouth and attack like pit bulls. The Bush attacks now are payback for 8 years of Clinton attacks which were payback for 12 years of Reagan/Bush 41 attacks which are paybacks for vilifying the Dems of the late 70’s. DC is little more than a game of tit-for-tat with little concern for minor issues like “the truth”, and “what’s best for the country”. On top of everything else, when one party gets total control of Congress and the Presidency, they totally disregard their so called “principles” (see the fiscal restraint of recent Republican control as the latest example). Pure opinion on my part, but I just don’t think it matters who gets elected as far as a chance to change the tone.

  4. McGehee says:

    A McCain presidency would have been divisive, but only in a different way. With Bush, the Democrats and the media hate him but Republicans love him.

    With McCain, Republicans and Democrats would hate him (for different reasons) but the media would love him.

    Rick, never ever confuse media popularity with real popularity. McCain is about as well liked by his colleagues as John Kerry.

  5. Boyd says:

    McCain is about as well liked by his colleagues as John Kerry.

    Well hey, at least they like each other!

    Don’t they? I mean, they said they liked each other. They wouldn’t lie to us or anything…would they?

  6. Rick DeMent says:

    I not so sure things would have been more bi-partisan, just less divisive. Unless less you think that there is not some kind of viral quality to the irrational hate that Clinton inspires on the right or Bush inspires on the left.

    I mean Republicans love Zell Miller too are you saying that a Miller administration would be the same kind of lighting rod for irrational hate that Clinton was? Come on. Hell, I would be a lot more comfortable with McCain as president and a lot more willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. I would still have policy issues because he is, at his core, conservative, and I’m not so much. But I think there some people seem to be a lightning rod for political hysteria lkie Bush and Clinton.

  7. Mahnster says:

    Fair point about Clinton being a lightning rod, but Bush worked both sides of the aisle pretty effectively in Texas; he was the enemy/lightning rod when he ran for president. Senators McCain and Miller are ok to the other party because they are a more palatable 1 of 100 (1 of 50 in their party), as they became the 1 of 1 as president and hired mostly within their party, the long knifes would come out quickly. Once again, that is opinion only; neither could carry his party’s base enough to get the nomination so it is only speculation. However, I wish you were right and I was wrong, but I doubt there will be an opportunity to prove it one way or another in the short term.

  8. Ruth says:

    They say McCain is auditioning for Sec.of Defence in a Kerry government. He’s certainly all over the tube. But why stop one’s imaginings there?

  9. Attila Girl says:

    McCain is “conservative” at his core . . .! That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a while.