Political realist now follows his own path

Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / November 23, 2007

Sixth in a series of occasional articles examining the presidential candidates.

PHOENIX - On the afternoon of Feb. 1, 2000, as New Hampshire's Republican-primary voters lined up at the polls, John McCain was falling asleep on the bed of his Nashua hotel room as he tried to watch a movie on the television screen before him.

Movies have been an election-day charm for the superstitious McCain since his first in 1982, when the restless new politico, nervous and with no campaigning left to do, snuck into a Phoenix-area theatre showing "Star Wars."

The movie ritual was validated that night in New Hampshire, where the Arizona senator beat George W. Bush by 18 points and declared that "a wonderful New Hampshire campaign has come to an end, but a great national crusade has just begun."

In the coming days, when McCain wanted to animate his new crusade, he returned repeatedly to "Star Wars." With the mix of ironic humor and deathly earnestness that became his candidacy's hallmark, McCain would enter rallies to the film's theme and even describe himself as "Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the death star."

McCain was an unlikely agent of political insurrection. The former war hero, who had avoided many of the great partisan and cultural clashes of his generation in public life, had entered politics as a well-funded celebrity candidate hoping to be part of Washington, not to change it.

On the issues that mattered to him, McCain was a conventional Republican, backing aggressive military spending and cautious about entanglements abroad. Above all, he appeared to be inspired not by ideological purpose or mission but a commitment to a handful of core character values and an instinct for political improvisation.

Yet during the 2000 campaign, McCain - who jokes that he started at "3 percent in the polls, with a 5 percent margin of error" - became the charismatic frontman for a national constituency that appeared to transcend all that was small and petty about American public life.

Running for president that year, McCain found his political identity as a rebel for new, inspiring uses of federal power - to restore honor to public life and engage the military to enforce American values worldwide. In his 60s, McCain completed the most unlikely of late-onset personal transformations: he moved, on matters of both policy and style, from being a realist to an idealist - a change that still defines McCain's public life.

Nothing propelled McCain's drift toward idealism more than the looming presence of Bush, the Darth Vader of his metaphorical universe. The two moderate western Republicans were in many ways similar, but Bush had the lucrative backing of the GOP establishment embodied by his father.

So McCain cast his campaign in relief from Bush's, which was then offering a conventional Republican critique of government and a skepticism of international entanglements. McCain, by contrast, combined a muscular foreign policy with vows to change the ways of Washington by limiting money in politics.

"We were the maverick, antiestablishment. It was easy to be that. It was a pretty natural juxtaposition," said longtime friend and adviser Wes Gullett. "It was our place, our lane to run in. And it was a nice, wide lane at that time."

That lane stayed open for the first six years of the Bush presidency, as McCain deplored Bush's fiscal management and insufficient commitment of troops in Iraq. But today, as McCain attempts to muster another crusade for the presidency, that lane has disappeared. One of Bush's earliest critics is now among his last defenders, an eager booster of the unpopular Iraq war.

Before he saw "Star Wars," McCain, who has long defined himself by his opponents as much as his allies, found inspiration in "Viva Zapata!" In the 1952 film, which McCain saw as a young man in Washington, Marlon Brando played the Mexican revolutionary martyred when ambushed by a corrupt regime.

"The experience enlivened my dreams of fighting for justice as fearlessly as Zapata had," McCain would later write. "But even more important to me was my hope that by doing so I would provoke the right sort of enemy."

John McCain likes to joke about the historical futility of Arizonans who have run for president, saying his is the "only state where mothers don't tell their children that one day they can grow up to be president." Recounting affectionate anecdotes about former Democratic representative Mo Udall and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, McCain grounds himself in the state's political tradition of sending idiosyncratic candidates to doomed but romantic presidential campaigns.

When McCain first expressed an interest in running for Congress in Arizona, he told Jay Smith, a political consultant, that he had never been to the state. As the son of an admiral, McCain had been born in the Panama Canal Zone but spent much of his youth in Washington. He graduated from the Naval Academy and then served as a pilot in Vietnam.

Shot down on a bombing run over Hanoi, McCain was taken into custody as a prisoner of war. He refused to accept an early release offered because of his father's renown; when finally set free nearly six years later, bearing the scars of brutal beatings, he became a minor political celebrity, embraced by President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan.

He took a job that kept him in the political orbit, serving as the Navy's Senate liaison. The new role threw McCain's loyalties into conflict: He secretly pushed senators for years to fund a new aircraft carrier even though the Pentagon brass thought the project was unnecessary.

During his time lobbying the Senate, McCain fell deeply into the institution's culture: Senators, drawn by his luster as an ex-POW and his gregarious personality, came to the liaison's office for happy hour as McCain mixed drinks. When McCain in 1980 married Cindy Hensley, the heiress of a wealthy and well-connected Phoenix family, he had two senators at his side: best man Bill Cohen and groomsman Gary Hart.

That marriage, McCain's second, gave the itinerant McCain a political home in Arizona. McCain came seeking a congressional district to run in, and found one that became open when longtime House minority leader John Rhodes retired. The day Rhodes announced his departure, McCain drove to Mesa to buy a home in his district.

"As ambitious as I was then and later, I've never been a very calculating man," he has written. "As a politician, I am instinctive, often impulsive, and quick at recognizing and seizing opportunities."

McCain was drawn to seek office by the lure of Congress, not a cause. "I got the sense he was not motivated by certain issues. It was the desire to serve," said Smith, McCain's lead strategist for his first decade in politics. With over $313,000, raised in part from political-action committees with military interests, McCain was able to vastly outspend his opponents, airing ads trumpeting "a name Arizonans are talking about."

At 45, McCain had no political identity, recognizing he would have to form one as he went along. "I'd ask him questions on strategy - and he said, 'Anything Jay Smith tells me to do, I do,' " said Richard DeUriarte, who covered the race as a reporter for the Phoenix Gazette.

Along the way, McCain was forced to form positions on a wide set of issues, especially newly influential Republican social causes like abortion, for which McCain showed little passion. "When I was in the military I didn't think a lot about it - I hadn't been involved in the issue," McCain said in an interview this month.

McCain's advisers struggled hardest to rebut the charge that he had moved to Arizona solely to seek office, but according to McCain, "nothing worked." It wasn't until pressed in a debate, when a questioner challenged his alleged opportunism, that McCain moved off his listless talking points.

"Listen, pal," McCain said. "I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

McCain's extemporaneous skills served him well as he paced back and forth in open-ended sessions with voters, and advisers scheduled as many town-hall meetings as they could in the district's libraries and senior centers. "The more he can mix it up with people, that's where he's at his best," Smith said recently. "He's not a good speech-giver."

As soon as he was elected to the House, McCain ran for president of the Republicans' freshman class, and won; it was, McCain acknowledges now, merely a "popularity contest." But, looking ahead to a likely Senate campaign a couple of years away, McCain was less interested in raising his profile within the party leadership in Washington than with home-state voters.

"I knew Barry Goldwater wasn't going to run for reelection in 1986, so when I got elected in 1982, I began aiming a lot of my work to position myself to run for his seat," McCain said. "I only lived in Arizona for a year and a half when I was elected. My priority was to really get into Arizona issues."

McCain named an aide, Grant Woods, as his chief of staff, but made the unusual move of putting him in Phoenix, not on Capitol Hill. McCain came back to the district each week, and set out to visit each of the state's 21 Native American reservations.

Most important, McCain turned down a seat on the Armed Services Committee and took one instead on the Interior Committee, where he studied Arizona issues relating to land and water rights. Many were already specialties of McCain's Democratic colleague Udall, who became an indispensable mentor to the young legislator and asked McCain in his first term to cosponsor two pieces of environmentally minded legislation.

When McCain declared he would run for the Senate in 1986, he was the instant front-runner. Despite his limited record, he had already cultivated a powerful base of support. "It was clear that McCain was the darling of the media and the Republican establishment, but not the precinct committee people," said DeUriarte.

As McCain rose in prominence in the 1980s, many of those around him were wrestling with some of the circumstances that had made possible his swift ascent: the increased centrality of money in politics. In 1983, Udall warned of "the dangerous, corrupting, and paralyzing influence of the outrageous sums of money - campaign contributions - which have become a paralyzing obscenity to our democratic form of government."

When Udall, working with lawyer Richard Moe, advanced a bill to create a bipartisan commission to look into the issue of campaign-finance reform, he received 100 co-sponsors from both parties, including Hart and Cohen. McCain's name wasn't among them.

Moe recalled in an interview that McCain was uninvolved. "I never had any encounter with him on this subject," Moe said.

In 1987, Senator David Boren of Oklahoma pushed a bill to implement spending limits and subsidies for congressional candidates, in addition to a ban on spending by PACs, and read a letter on the Senate floor in which Goldwater called the measure "a great thing for our country."

Days later, McCain, after communicating with Goldwater, claimed that his predecessor had been "misinformed." Goldwater, in fact, shared his position, McCain said: They both opposed Boren's reform.

When an Arizona Republic reporter approached McCain in 1989 to ask about a past investment by his wife, Cindy, in a shopping center developed by savings-and-loan mogul Charles Keating, McCain knew the subject was trouble.

It had already been established that McCain had joined four Democratic senators, including his Arizona colleague Dennis DeConcini, in a meeting with federal banking regulators on behalf of Keating, who had contributed over $100,000 to McCain's campaigns and had taken the senator's family by private jet on a vacation to Keating's house in the Bahamas.

McCain erupted, calling the reporter an "idiot" and saying, "You do understand English, don't you?"

The Senate Ethics Committee initiated hearings into the so-called Keating Five, alleged to have pressured regulators to ease their oversight of Keating, whose savings-and-loan empire later failed, costing taxpayers billions.

McCain, who has called the ensuing investigation more painful than his time in Hanoi, responded by taking his case public. While the other senators involved in the scandal often tried to avoid any coverage at all, McCain zestfully took on any media that would hear his defense - that he sat in on one meeting with regulators but never asked that Keating get special treatment.

When Goldwater wrote to McCain advising him to "lay off" further exposure about Keating, McCain responded that "openness and honesty is [sic] the only policy" and proudly included a tape and transcripts from his interviews.

"He was forthcoming, accessible to the press," recalled historian Jack L. August Jr., co-author of DeConcini's memoir. "McCain looked at the situation before him as a purely political problem. That was tactical, and he handled it with brilliant political acumen."

After 14 months of committee hearings, McCain and Ohio Democrat John Glenn in 1991 received the weakest sanction of the five, for showing "poor judgment." Even though polls initially showed that a majority of Arizonans thought McCain should resign, he instead embraced the issue of campaign-finance curbs with the zeal of a reformed sinner and was reelected overwhelmingly in 1992.

Having established a base of home-state support, McCain in his second term turned more toward exerting his influence in Washington. In 1995, he claimed his first major legislative success with a bill to give the president a line-item veto (although it would later be struck down by the Supreme Court).

Over the next few years, McCain's dissents from party dogma became more frequent, if still not predictable. McCain showed a knack for picking media-friendly causes with unpopular opponents that he could villainize as "special interests." Whatever McCain took on looked like a good-government crusade.

The tobacco industry spent a reported $40 million to defeat a McCain bill to raise cigarette taxes to fund an antismoking campaign. Broadcast lobbyists beat back a McCain effort to auction off the digital television spectrum rather than distribute it free.

McCain particularly enjoyed tweaking colleagues by issuing press releases and giving showy floor speeches calling attention to their pork-barrel appropriations. Among his favorite targets was "incredible, almost criminal, behavior like spending $325 million on an aircraft carrier that the Navy doesn't want or need" - similar to the one McCain had secretly supported against the Pentagon's wishes while a Navy lobbyist.

For the noble crusader, there is no success like failure: Each year that he and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold failed to pass their bill to ban the unregulated contributions to parties known as soft money, McCain's stature grew. McCain-Feingold, as it was known, antagonized Republican leaders and some conservative interest groups.

"He tries to be loyal to the party," said Woods, his former chief of staff. "The problem is when there's a friction between what he thinks is the right thing on a particular issue and what the party wants him to do, he will go the other way every time."

After an easy reelection to a third term in 1998, McCain - who had been actively involved in the 1996 presidential campaigns of Senate colleagues Phil Gramm and Bob Dole, and made Dole's vice-presidential shortlist - decided to seek the presidency himself. As McCain assembled a team, many of those who had been around him in Arizona - including Woods and Smith, McCain's longtime political consultant - weren't there.

"Political loyalty is not important to him," Smith said. "He's interested in who at that time can do him the most good."

To introduce himself to voters, McCain and aide Mark Salter began work on "Faith of My Fathers," a military-family memoir that, atypical of campaign books, ended with McCain's return from Vietnam rather than focus on his legislative career.

"It was a book that was quite intentionally devoid of any political references or insinuation," said publisher Jonathan Karp, then of Random House. "We didn't want the power of the story to be cheapened by the politics of the time."

Yet by the time the book was published in the fall of 1999, the United States had unexpectedly returned to the battlefield. McCain's pursuit of the manly ideal of "honor," the theme of his book, was the politics of the time.

As McCain prepared to announce his candidacy in April 1999, NATO planes - with Clinton administration support - began bombing targets in Serbia with the goal of driving the country's troops out of Kosovo. McCain suspended the pomp of an announcement tour and worked instead on goading Clinton to go further and launch a ground war.

McCain's strong support for military action in Kosovo ran counter to the views of most Republican candidates for president - and to those that McCain had espoused at the start of his political career. Sixteen years earlier, in his first tough stand as a freshman congressman, he had opposed the Reagan administration's desire to deploy Marines to Lebanon during the country's civil war.

"I do not foresee obtainable objectives in Lebanon," McCain said in 1983. "I believe the longer we stay, the more difficult it will be to leave, and I am prepared to accept the consequences of our withdrawal."

McCain had long worried that such interventions would become quagmires, citing the "lessons of Vietnam." Yet he never found a home in the party's foreign-policy argument between the so-called idealists, looking to advance American values overseas, and realists, who were skeptical about such interventions. McCain's circle of informal advisers came to include leading thinkers in both movements; his approach, McCain suggests, is less ideological than ad hoc.

"Since there is this tension between the two different views of America in the world, then sometimes they come down to a case-by-case basis," McCain said in the interview.

Yet during the 1990s, McCain slowly moved toward the idealist camp and became one of his party's foremost advocates for the use of force abroad.

At first, McCain offered only tentative support for the Gulf War in 1990, expressing fear of the United States becoming entangled. "I think the biggest mistake we could make is getting into a ground war," he said.

But he eventually voted in favor of the war, claiming the "new world order" gave the United States a singular responsibility to confront dictators.

Similarly, after objecting to US peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti, and, initially, Bosnia, in the early '90s, McCain changed course in 1995. He proposed a resolution, against much of his party, supporting American troops in the Balkans, motivated by the defenselessness of Bosnians massacred at Srebrenica.

Then, in 1999, a month before NATO dropped its first bombs on Kosovo, McCain unveiled the result of his full turn on the subject of foreign interventions, proposing his own doctrine that the United States should be willing to take preemptive action against "rogue states."

"The United States should formulate a policy," he said, "of supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states."

McCain borrowed heavily from the notion of "national-greatness conservatism" advanced in the Clinton years by David Brooks and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard. Rejecting the isolationist, antigovernment impulses of post-Cold War Republicanism, Brooks and Kristol instead argued for a new idealism at home and abroad.

Citing Theodore Roosevelt as their inspiration, they encouraged a morally grounded interventionist foreign policy and an activist bureaucracy that took on big domestic projects. "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?" Brooks and Kristol asked.

National-greatness conservatism fused McCain's support for the use of American force abroad and robust federal intervention at home for virtuous causes such as preventing children from smoking. It was a cohesive worldview for McCain as a candidate and the closest thing he had ever found to an ideological identity.

"They were able to put into words what was in the senator's mind about the unique role the US plays," campaign manager Rick Davis said in a recent interview, referring to Brooks and Kristol, who became a trusted adviser to McCain. "They started to build an intellectual background for it."

McCain, described by columnist William Safire at the time as "the de facto president of the United States," became one of the nation's strongest voices in favor of the Kosovo war, and saw his poll numbers rise quickly into double digits in the months before the New Hampshire primary. At the same time, Bush, the campaign's front-runner - who expressed unease at American intervention and "nation-building" - appeared to dither on the subject.

On Kosovo, McCain's differences with Bush were ones of great principle, setting up the type of battle that most galvanized McCain.

Like McCain, Bush was the scion of an accomplished family with a compelling case that he represented a modern conservatism: He had served in Texas as a moderate governor with a record of bipartisan successes on issues like education reform.

But, unlike McCain, Bush entered the race in 1999 with access to lots of money - eventually three times as much of it as McCain - and top Republican campaign talent and elected officials flocking to his side in Austin. Bush's institutional support meant that in the context of the campaign, it was McCain, a two-decade Capitol Hill veteran, who became the candidate running against Washington.

"In politics, you define yourself by who your opponent is," said McCain adviser Max Fose. "All through the campaign, it was David and Goliath. We framed ourselves that way."

The campaign's strategic dynamic became inseparable from its idealistic purpose. "Breaking Washington's iron triangle of money, lobbying, and special interests is the mission of this campaign," McCain said in an early speech. While Bush was busy raising money, McCain vowed, "I'm going to be out there raising hell because we're going to stop these special interests."

To outrun the Bush bandwagon, McCain launched a bus called the "Straight Talk Express," where reporters - whom McCain jokingly called "my base" - had nearly unlimited access to him. The set-up played to McCain's strengths as a tireless, talkative generalist who could rotate between sports banter, blunt political insights, authoritative policy analysis, and worn jokes.

"Very few politicians would employ that strategy: First of all you have to be pretty much in the right, and second, you have to be pretty smart and pretty confident you can handle that," Woods said.

For McCain, who couldn't afford to generate media coverage other than from his own lips to reporters' ears, "straight talk" was a strategic necessity elevated to an act of civic high-mindedness.

When he decided to skip the Iowa caucuses, the campaign explained it as a function of McCain's courageous and self-defeating position against agriculture subsidies - not, as he acknowledges today, a tactical decision driven by limited resources.

While Bush avoided much direct contact with voters in New Hampshire - and even skipped two early, important debates there - McCain campaigned zealously, often hosting several of his freewheeling town-hall meetings a day.

"It was a clear contrast to the other candidate: I'm going to come out here and talk to you and - they know it already - George Bush isn't coming out here. It's two different styles," said Fose.

As it became a two-man race with Bush, McCain repeatedly found a place to his opponent's left. He criticized Bush's tax plan for being recklessly generous to the rich - and said he would offer a smaller cut and reinvest in Social Security. Even as Bush was accusing him of being too liberal, McCain partnered with Democratic candidate Bill Bradley to promote campaign-finance reform.

"You look at who John was attracting and we started appealing more to those people," said Fose.

McCain's campaign was tailored to states like New Hampshire and Michigan, where primaries were open to Democrats and independents. It did not translate easily to states where only Republicans could vote.

As a result, what worked so well to win New Hampshire collapsed nationally: A presidential campaign strategy could not be guided by the quick, unstudied pivots that were McCain's forte. One day he opposed the Confederate flag in South Carolina as a "symbol of racism and slavery," then the following defended it as a "symbol of heritage."

After promising to run a positive campaign - and feeling that Bush reneged on a vow to do the same - McCain ran an ad shortly in South Carolina accusing his opponent of "twisting the truth like Clinton." McCain's campaign quickly withdrew the ad.

Bush won South Carolina, aided by a devastating campaign of anonymous flyers and phone calls personally attacking McCain and his family, including one alleging that he had fathered an illegitimate black child.

McCain, who had in his career carefully cultivated antagonists for rhetorical purposes, now had real ones among Bush's religious-right supporters. McCain responded with a speech in Pat Robertson's Virginia hometown condemning him and Jerry Falwell, two preachers associated with Bush, as "agents of intolerance."

Showing the "beautiful fatalism" McCain celebrated in Zapata's tale, McCain had come to embody his crusade right in time for it to end.

"To stand up and take on the forces of evil - that's my job," McCain told reporters at the time, before taking back his words. They were, he explained, a joke inspired by "Star Wars."

The campaign's last hurrah came in late February, when McCain won the Michigan and Arizona primaries. He waved a toy light saber and declared the formation of a "McCain majority," welcoming independents and Democrats to join his crusade.

It was a majority that would never govern. By then, Bush had all but sewn up the Republican nomination. McCain returned to the Senate in 2001 changed by the presidential campaign: He was no longer seen as an idiosyncratic conservative, but one of his caucus's more liberal members.

To the extent there was a "McCain majority," it meant he acted as a bridge between the chamber's besieged Republican moderates and Democrats, who began Bush's term in the minority. McCain was at the center of precarious centrist compromises on the size of tax cuts, the approval of federal judges, immigration reform, and the use of torture on detainees.

Above all, McCain came back with what observers considered a public mandate for campaign-finance reform, developing a national constituency for his good-government agenda, leading to its final passage - and Bush's reluctant signing - in March 2002.

During the 2000 campaign, McCain had developed a personal interest in global warming, an issue he said he discovered after activists pressured him about it at town-hall meetings; he held hearings on the subject and introduced legislation to create a "cap-and-trade" system for emissions credits.

After Sept. 11, 2001, however, McCain's passion shifted from domestic reform to national-security issues. McCain stood by Bush's side as the president underwent a shotgun evolution on issues of American power.

McCain was one of Bush's most loyal boosters on the necessity of rogue-state rollback in Iraq before the war began, but became one of the fiercest critics of the war's execution. McCain warned repeatedly that Bush's strategy - short on the ground troops necessary to ensure security and local support - risked tragic failure, presenting himself as a dissenter defending military culture and national honor.

Yet as McCain's second campaign for president began to form, it was his support for Bush's war - along with his strong backing of his former rival's unpopular immigration stance - that dwarfed their areas of prior conflict.

McCain, once seen as an unbeatable candidate in the general election thanks to the support of independents and Democrats, now was criticized as being unelectable because he sat too close to Bush and the Republican establishment. McCain, for the first time in his career, had become defined by his friends rather than his enemies

To those wondering which was the real McCain - the one from then, or the one now - McCain suggested that in political life there were only challenges and opportunities, not constants.

"It's been eight years," McCain said as a new vehicle christened the Straight Talk Express rumbled down New Hampshire's country roads. "As reporters and media observers get into the campaign, a lot of things in the past have a tendency to disappear. It's all about what's happening now."

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.