John McCain has had a curious odyssey in life. His stoic service as a prisoner of war gave him a springboard into public office. He played his hand well, finding a political home and many well connected benefactors in Arizona. He has one of the safest Senate seats in the nation and is now regarded as an icon of public integrity. His grace is sought be both parties’ candidates for president. John McCain has transcended party and ascended to a revered place in the American pantheon. The Washington Post’s long time political columnist David Broder says he’s never seen anything like the McCain phenomena.
Living in Arizona since 1982 has given me a unique perspective on John McCain’s career. He was not yet a public official when I arrived; he was one of four candidates in a bruising Republican primary that year. And he was by no means a shoo-in. Is primary opponents derided him as a Carpetbagger, a man whose only connection to Arizona was a political consultant’s estimation that it would be a favorable place to seek public office. As a “military brat” McCain lacked a real home state so choosing Arizona was not wholly a political move but it did come with some obvious benefits. Among the benefits were an newly minted seat in Congress and a political establishment that welcomed him.
McCain brought star status to Arizona politics. As a celebrated war hero he appealed to Arizonans’ military tradition. He used his POW status wherever and whenever possible in his campaign and was able to squeak past his primary opponents. He has never been seriously challenged since that time. McCain was sufficiently conservative to play to hardcore Republicans but not so much so that he would frighten Arizona’s growing ranks of independent voters. Just the man that the monied establishment in Phoenix needed to represent them.
McCain was the perfect handmaiden of Arizona’s establishment, catering to the needs of Arizona’s developers, industry and agriculture. He was a staunch supporter of the $6 billion Central Arizona Project that funneled Colorado River water into the sprawling desert metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson. He was a close friend and accomplice of Charles Keating, helping Keating fend off meaningful oversight of his increasingly shakey savings and loan empire. McCain was hardly alone in this. He was, after all, only one of the group of senators who became known as the Keating Five. But his willingness to serve one of America’s most notorious freebooters is a breach of public trust that is not easily forgotten.
So for much of his career, I viewed John McCain as a man who had once served with honor in his life and was now using that reputation in a highly self-serving manner. Imagine my surprise, then, in 2000 when he became the media darling, traveling the country in the “Straight Talk Express” as a rival to George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. Even more surprising was that I found him to be an attractive alternative to Bush (although that is pretty easy thing to be in my estimation). I began to wonder if McCain had really become a true independent, speaking the truth regardless of political consequences. His unwillingness to join the full tilt Republican assault on John Kerry throughout much of 2004 causes me further doubt.
I’m still not sure but watching McCain join the Bush campaign in recent weeks and speaking on its behalf reminds me that the ambitious John McCain of 1982 is still very much alive and well. McCain is actively supporting Bush even after Bush refused McCain’s request to condemn the Swift Boat Veterans’ distortion of Kerry’s military service. McCain presents a voice of moderation at the Republican convention when he knows that the policies of a second term Bush administration will be anything but moderate. And he supports Bush’s policy in Iraq even though Bush has rejected McCain’s advice on the number of troops necessary to fulfill America’s promises to Iraq and the world. McCain sounds every bit like a man seeking to ingratiate himself with his party so that he can run for president in 2008.
I still see the ambitious opportunist who came to Arizona not long before me. His opposition to pork barrel politics comes only after securing federal funds to move water across the desert in support of Arizona’s sprawling development. His commitment to fiscal responsibility is questionable after years of supporting Reagan and Bush II tax cuts. John McCain has called the war in Iraq “the test of a generation” yet he praises a president who is unwilling to commit the forces needed to pass that test. All this tells me that John McCain in 2004 has still not completely not really abandoned his calculated ambition. The nation may see him as the anti-politician who tells it like it is. I still see a clever schemer. I am looking for him to consistently demonstrate in his public life the same moral courage he showed as a prisoner of war.