Sen. John McCain

The media want him to be president. It’s a bad idea.

The Man Who Should Be King

It is this arm, this right arm, that North Vietnamese torturers worked over for days in a hellhole called the Plantation, till it was broken and bruised and lacerated. It is this arm, this right arm, that is still stiff, still scarred, still bent. And it is this arm, this right arm, that the avaricious barons of tobacco, who sell death and call it commerce, think they can twist, think they can break, think they can make reach out to them, open-palmed.

But, you see, they don’t understand that this arm has a man attached to it. And they don’t understand that the man is Sen. John McCain, who is allergic to their blandishments and threats, just as he is allergic to the cozy, sleazy compromises of this dark city, just as he is allergic to the mendacious hypocrisies of politics as it is practiced in late-20th century America. For Sen. John McCain is the last _____ (man of honor, hero, honest man, saint …) in American politics. And perhaps, if we are very lucky, he is our next president …

Political journalism, like all professions, depends on the formula–the ritual “Newt is doomed” or “Clinton will survive anything” stories. During the past year, there has been a significant addition to the Washington media formulary: the John McCain profile. It can be boiled down to this: He was our bravest Vietnam prisoner of war. Now he’s the only senator courageous enough to tell the truth. He is battling evil cigarette lobbyists and Senate money-grubbers. He may lose, but he won’t quit. In 2000, he’ll run for president. We don’t deserve someone this honorable. Vote for him.

E squire, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Time, and countless newspapers have sanctified the Arizona Republican in this way. Mike Wallace has said he would consider quitting 60 Minutes to aid a McCain 2000 campaign. As far as the national media are concerned, McCain can do no wrong. When his tobacco bill was shot down, the New York Times declared the defeat would only burnish his reputation. When he got caught telling a dumb, nasty about Chelsea Clinton–the kind of crack that might cripple the career of someone else in Congress–he apologized immediately, was forgiven by the president, and the love-in continued. (Click for a brief sidebar on how McCain uses apology as a career strategy.)

It’s easy to understand why McCain has been anointed the media’s favorite presidential hopeful. He is irresistible. In a Senate populated by grasping automatons, he behaves like an actual human being. Probably because of his five and a half year imprisonment, he is impatient with the euphemisms and lies of politics. (Bob Dole once said of him, “You spend five years in a box and you’re entitled to speak your mind.”) McCain cracks jokes, dishes dirt, and generally mocks the hypocrisies and failings of his colleagues (and himself). The more his colleagues spin and position themselves, the better he looks.

McCain also has the appeal of the maverick. The press loves Republican traitors, and McCain’s willingness to buck his party bosses on campaign finance and tobacco makes great copy. (If he were a Democrat leading the fight against tobacco and campaign corruption, no one would care.) There is something heroic about a politician who seems to act against his immediate self-interest.

McCain benefits, too, from the general swoon about his history. He is an awesome man. He doesn’t need to talk about the war: Reporters, most of whom never served in the military, are paralyzed by him. His indisputable bravery and honor inoculate him against charges of base motives.

And he makes himself phenomenally accessible. According to Arizona reporters, he’s ill-tempered and vindictive toward the local press; but he charms the socks off national reporters. He interrupts family vacations to appear on cable news and rises at ungodly hours on foreign trips to do TV interviews. He has a knack for flattering reporters. Other politicians obviously stage-manage media encounters. McCain, by contrast, is transparent. He confides in reporters. He holds conversations with his children in front of them. He asks them for advice. (Tip to pols: No. 1 way to ensure a favorable article is to ask the reporter for advice.)

But the McCain hagiography is not harmless. It misleads the American people, and it will disserve him if he does run for president. He isn’t just an honorable, truth-seeking hero, a selfless iconoclast. He’s a schemer, a politician, a calculating populist who has built his career on sexy, attention-getting issues. He is opportunistic. He arrived at a convenient time in the tobacco fight: He had no strong feelings about the evil weed, and he became the tobacco scourge only when Republican leaders asked him to shepherd the bill through the Senate. He adopted campaign finance reform only after he was tarred in the Keating Five scandal several years ago. Others who’ve devoted years to campaign finance and tobacco have watched McCain get credit as the heroic martyr, the patron saint of lost causes.

What’s more pernicious about the coverage is that it confuses the qualities of a crusader with those of a president. McCain is often praised as an independent legislator, but no one ever points out that he’s a rather ineffective one. He is unpopular in the Senate. Some of his Republican colleagues dislike him for selfish reasons–they envy his popularity and resent his outsider stances. (“His colleagues feel he’s a showboat and a camera hog,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.) But they also dislike him for good reasons. McCain resists the political horse trading that underlies legislating: He has said he has no plans to modify the tobacco bill to get it passed. (Well, why not?) Similarly, he infuriates senators with grandstanding attacks on pork, being a master at publicizing and eliminating other senators’ sweetheart projects. He does not recognize quid pro quo politics.

This naked, righteous populism makes McCain a superb advocate on campaign finance and tobacco. And there is certainly something romantic in the notion that America needs an honorable, truth-telling president like him. But there is also something foolish in it. McCain is a contrarian, someone whose life is defined by lonely opposition. He was a pilot, not a platoon leader. He resisted his captors alone and endured years in solitary confinement. At the Naval Academy, McCain was nicknamed “Punk,” and that’s what he is. He suspects authority and challenges orthodoxy. It’s why he’s a great story and a great troublemaker.

It’s also why he would make a lousy president. Being president is not about bucking authority, it’s about being authority. It’s not about resisting coercion, it’s about coercing, and bargaining, and sucking up, and twisting arms, and telling little lies. John McCain thinks that’s beneath him. So he should stay in the Senate and continue to make trouble.

If you missed McCain’s awful joke,. This describes McCain’s penchant for apologies.