First term shaped McCain's identity

Local agenda was wellspring

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / May 30, 2008

TEMPE, Ariz. - The first memo that John McCain received from his new consultants before running for Congress was filled with instructions that did not quite rise to the level of strategy: make sure to register to vote, obtain an Arizona driver's license, and open a bank account in the state.

"To achieve your immediate goal of establishing yourself in the community, you should join at least one veterans' organization and one service organization such as the Kiwanis or the Jaycees," Jay Smith and Mark Harroff advised their client on April 13, 1981. "The last step in this initial phase is to join a church, as well as its men's auxiliary."

McCain, a 45-year-old former Navy officer and decorated prisoner of war, moved to Arizona - home to his new wife, Cindy, a Phoenix beer heiress - with little more than a plan to run for Congress. McCain's inaugural campaign and his first, low-profile term in Congress were crucial to the formation of his political identity, according to a review of McCain's congressional papers made available to the Globe.

Many of the issues McCain first encountered then have stayed with him as a presidential candidate a generation later. He allied himself with environmentalist and immigrant causes popular among Democrats, while showing little zeal for social issues, such as abortion, dear to many Republicans. When it came to national security, McCain feared repeating the quagmire of Vietnam - and believed earning public support was crucial to military success abroad.

Far from today's rebellious, self-described maverick who rails jokingly against Washington as the "City of Satan," McCain introduced himself to voters in 1982 as a Capitol insider, based on his three years as the Navy's Senate liaison.

Calling himself "no stranger to the ways of Congress," McCain entered the House in January 1983 as a cautious establishmentarian whose dissents from Republican orthodoxy emerged from a modest and parochial sense of duty: representing his district.

"We had a cluster of ideological candidates, but I wouldn't have said he was one of them," said Nancy Sinnott Dwight, a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who first met with McCain, Smith, and Harroff in early 1981 for lunch on Capitol Hill.

McCain won the 1982 primary by six points, and glided through an easy general election, already beginning to look ahead to the Senate seat that Barry Goldwater indicated he would vacate in 1986. The terms of the $775-per-month lease McCain signed for an office in Tempe after his first election made the timeline clear: Lawyers added a clause saying McCain could renew for two 2-year terms.

"He started out wanting to be elected to the House of Representatives. And once he got there he very much wanted to become a United States senator," said Smith, now a Virginia-based consultant. "I feel certain that when he entered politics he did not have an issues agenda. He just wanted to serve; he felt he was qualified to serve, and that if he was elected, good things would happen."

McCain's ran successfully for the presidency of the Republicans' freshman class, and his maiden speech on the House floor in January of 1983 suggested he expected to feel at home in the institution. McCain read an excerpt from Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" about the feeling a young man had finding "himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity" when he joined the insular and elite world of the space program.

McCain had stumbled into a generational conflict underway in the House: led by Newt Gingrich, a cadre of young upstarts rejected the chamber's tradition of collegial deal-making and turned to aggressive methods to undermine the Democratic majority.

McCain sided with the party's old guard - exhibiting "maturity and probably a little bit of caution," according to Dwight - by declaring "a fine line between allowing yourself to be run over by the Democratic leadership and impeding the House's legislative action."

McCain had previously exhibited little interest in partisan politics. In Florida, where he had been stationed at military bases after returning from Vietnam, McCain had voted in only three elections during his seven years as a registered voter.

He skipped the 1976 general election and missed two opportunities to vote for the man he later described as his hero, Ronald Reagan, in the 1976 and 1980 primaries.

Although McCain today credits Reagan, whom he befriended after returning from Vietnam, with having drawn him into politics as "a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution," he initially drew some distance from the first-term president.

During his campaign, McCain's advisers shared worrisome poll data about Reagan's unpopularity with voters. Speaking on behalf of the freshman Republican class, McCain declared to the Washington Times, "I don't think anyone will ever call us 'Reagan's Robots,' as was depicted of the previous class."

That September, though he later wrote it was "not easy for me to disagree with the president," McCain opposed Reagan's request for authorization to deploy Marines to Lebanon, warning of a potential quagmire.

While McCain's voting record was reliably conservative - he generally pushed for a muscular Cold War defense, tougher penalties for federal crimes, and fiscal restraint - he was not innately suspicious of government, an attitude that continues to rankle Republican peers. Shortly after taking office, McCain told representatives of the League of Women Voters that a critical element of national security would be " 'National Will' - the importance of public opinion which supports public policies," as a league official put it in her notes.

McCain, however, had never been "called upon to take stands on specific issues," according to Smith.

A draft version of a 1982 candidate questionnaire completed for the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, an influential conservative group, showed McCain to be undecided on many of the questions on which the group asked for his position - including such high-profile concerns as a balanced-budget amendment and whether women should serve in combat (McCain eventually supported both policies).

In an interview last fall, McCain acknowledged that "when I was in the military I didn't think a lot about" the controversial moral issues that were beginning to divide his party. McCain's polling demonstrated that "abortion is not considered an important issue, not linked to congressional race," according to notes from a campaign staff meeting in early 1982.

Local concerns dominated McCain's focus, and tended to draw him farthest from his party.

Once elected, McCain made the unusual move of placing his chief of staff, Grant Woods, in Tempe instead of on Capitol Hill, and McCain returned to Arizona weekly, often missing votes. "How can we be present in Washington around the clock and at the same time fulfill our commitment to remain close to our districts?" McCain wrote in a brief essay, "The Job of a Congressman Requires Redefining."

To focus on land and water issues important to Southwestern states, McCain sought a seat on the Interior Committee, then chaired by Congressman Mo Udall, a liberal Democrat from Tucson who McCain now identifies as an early mentor.

One of McCain's first legislative successes had him assuming a cause popular among local environmentalists: a bill banning helicopter flights over the Grand Canyon.

"It was kind of, 'we'll take each issue as they come along' and I'll decide what the position is. He didn't come with a preset agenda," said Smith, noting that McCain recognized the political value of such improvisation. "If you're doctrinaire on every kind of issue, you're not very interesting and you're not appealing."

McCain made gestures of outreach to two Arizona minorities whose causes were rarely taken up by Republicans. He visited each of the 15 Native American reservations in his district and undertook legislative efforts to address alcohol abuse among their residents. In addition, McCain joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the invitation of Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat, and voted against a controversial 1984 bill that would have cracked down on employers of illegal immigrants; McCain's literature said it would "discriminate against Hispanics."

His time in the district allowed McCain to draw a series of influential backers, including Charles Keating, a banking mogul whose patronage led years later to ethics charges (eventually dismissed) that McCain had performed favors for him. In addition to raising his own campaign funds from Keating - a total of $112,000 over McCain's career - during his first term McCain also solicited him on behalf of a colleague, Representative Jim Kolbe, and a conservative political action committee that had aided McCain, Americans for Constitutional Action.

"Of the many things we have to be grateful for in this world, the friendship of the Keating family is certainly among the most meaningful," McCain wrote Keating in late 1983.

In a safe Republican district, McCain had no serious opposition for reelection in 1984 and began to prepare for the Senate race. "A top priority for 1984 is to begin to assemble an organization statewide," Smith wrote in a memo to Woods. Smith pushed McCain to carry a notebook as he traveled outside his district, to record the names of supporters. At campaign headquarters, the information made its way onto a map eventually pockmarked with colored pushpins. Each one marked an Arizona town with "McCain people."

Although McCain credits Ronald Reagan with having drawn him into politics, he initially drew some distance from the president.


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