Editorial Column: The Real McCain

The Guardian

June 22, 2008 – It is a vintage John McCain performance. Standing in a light-filled atrium at the University of Denver, McCain is espousing his vision for America’s future relations with the world. He hits all the right notes, citing liberal icon John F Kennedy and conservative hero Ronald Reagan. He strikes a muscular tone against America’s enemies, yet tempers it with restraint. He speaks of a ‘common vision’ among nations. ‘I want us to rise to the challenges of our time, as generations before us rose to theirs,’ he says. He addresses the audience as ‘my friends’ and promises a safer, more reasonable world. ‘It still remains within our power to make in our time another, better world than we inherited,’ he concludes. As the crowd applaud, McCain plunges into the throng to pump hands and sign autographs.

Welcome to the John McCain show 2008. It’s powerful stuff, portraying McCain as the decent patriot of the middle ground and a steady hand for difficult times. For a lot of Americans – including many Democrats – it is a beguiling vision. They see a war hero whose courage was forged in a North Vietnamese POW camp. They see a maverick who spoke against the tortures of Abu Ghraib. They see a reformer who acts against lobbyists and political favours. They see a politician who has spent a lifetime serving his country and won a place in the hearts of the nation.

Now McCain is also trying to win the White House. He has taken his campaign to places far from the projected Republican road map to victory. He has spoken in the ‘black belt’ of rural Alabama. He has toured Appalachian coal country to talk about poverty. He has gone to the hippy enclave of Oregon to lecture on global warming. In short, he is a Republican that even liberals can love. And many do. McCain’s appeal to America’s vital middle ground could easily propel him to the Oval Office.

But there is another, very different side to John McCain. Away from the headlines and the stirring speeches, a less familiar figure lurks. It is a McCain who plans to fight on in Iraq for years to come and who might launch military action against Iran. This is the McCain whose campaign and career has been riddled with lobbyists and special interests. It is a McCain who has sided with religious and political extremists who believe Islam is evil and gays are immoral. It is a McCain who wants to appoint extreme conservatives to the Supreme Court and see abortion banned. This McCain has a notoriously volatile temper that has scared some senior members of his own party. If McCain becomes the most powerful man in the world it would be wise to know what lies behind his public mask, to look at the dark side of John McCain.

John McCain is an American hero in an age of war and terrorism. As young Americans return in bodybags from Iraq and Iranian mullahs cook up uranium, an old soldier like McCain seems a natural choice in a dangerous world. He is the son and grandson of warriors. Both his father and grandfather were four-star admirals. He was even born on a military base, on 29 August 1936, in Panama. And his life story reads like a movie script. The young, rascally McCain, nicknamed ‘McNasty’ by his classmates, attended the elite West Point military academy. He became a navy pilot, long before Tom Cruise made ‘Top Guns’ famous, and began his first combat duty in Vietnam in 1966, carrying out countless missions. Then came disaster. He was shot down and held prisoner for five years by brutal North Vietnamese captors. In his stiff gait and damaged arms, he still bears the scars of their tortures. His CV for the White House is written in his suffering as much as in his career as a senator.

That military legacy has made John McCain a legend. But it has not turned him into a peacemaker, at a time when most Americans desperately want the war to end. Anyone hoping for a new president who will quickly bring America’s troops home from Iraq had better look elsewhere. McCain has always supported the invasion of Iraq and he wants to support it until at least 2013, or perhaps for many years beyond. He believes withdrawal would be a surrender to terrorists.

That warlike spirit was on full display in Denver when McCain’s speech was interrupted repeatedly by anti-war protesters. They stood up, unfurling banners and shouting for a withdrawal from Iraq. When it happened a third time, McCain had had enough. In a voice suddenly filled with steely resolve, McCain broke from his carefully scripted speech and gripped the lectern. He looked out at the audience and spoke slowly. ‘I will never surrender in Iraq,’ he rasped. ‘Our American troops will come home with victory and with honour.’ The crowd cheered and chanted: ‘John McCain! John McCain!’ It was a perfect moment for unrepentant supporters of the Iraq invasion and a McCain who still smarts from defeat in Vietnam. No retreat. No surrender. This time America will win.

McCain believes in projecting American military power abroad. So it is no wonder that the neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq have now regrouped around him. McCain’s main foreign policy adviser is Randy Scheunemann, who was executive director of the shadowy Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Other leading neocons on board include John Bolton, America’s belligerent former UN ambassador, Bill Kristol, editor of the Neocon bible the Weekly Standard, and Max Boot, who has pushed for a US version of the old British Colonial Office. Another close McCain adviser is former CIA director James Woolsey, who has openly advocated bombing Syria.

Such a group of warlike counsellors has raised fears that McCain may strike Iran to stop its suspected quest for a nuclear weapon, triggering a fresh war in the Middle East. The Republican candidate has openly joked about bombing Tehran. It was just over a year ago, in the tiny borough of Murrells Inlet in South Carolina, and McCain faced a small crowd in one of his characteristic town hall meetings. As McCain stood on the stage, one man asked him about the ‘real problem’ in the Middle East. ‘When are we going to send an airmail message to Tehran?’ the man pleaded. McCain laughed and – to the tune of the Beach Boys’ classic ‘Barbara Ann’ – began to sing: ‘Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.’ But some think McCain’s joke may well become policy. ‘I think a McCain presidency would be very likely to strike Iran,’ says Cliff Schecter, author of a new book, The Real McCain

McCain is still most at home with soldiers. Earlier this year I watched him on the stump in Charleston, South Carolina. He chose to speak at the Citadel, an elite military college, where old tanks and retired rockets dotted the lawns and squads of young recruits jogged around its quads. At the small rally McCain was relaxed and at home and the crowd loved him: here was their war hero made flesh. Here was a man unafraid to strike first.

John McCain’s second bid for the presidency has been a long time coming. After being beaten by Bush in 2000, the Senator from Arizona has returned to the fray more determined than ever. And central to his success has been his media strategy.

Three years ago I followed McCain to a fund-raising dinner in Hartford, Connecticut, a wealthy city of insurers and bankers. McCain spoke at a private club downtown, giving an early version of his stump speech and already being introduced as the next president of the United States. He gave an impromptu press conference, bantering gamely with reporters. When that was done, aides tried to drag him away, but McCain raced across the room and sought out a local reporter to clarify an answer he had given. The journalist, unused to such personal attention from a potential president, looked like a spellbound deer in the headlights as McCain spoke to him for a further 10 minutes. The fact is, McCain loves journalists and they love him back. That is how the myth of the moderate maverick – the most powerful tool in his political armoury – has come to be.

Nothing has changed since that moment in Hartford. McCain’s campaign bus – dubbed the Straight Talk Express, just as it was in 2000 – is filled with journalists who travel at the back with McCain, relaxing on a U-shaped couch. McCain recently hosted a barbecue for journalists at his Arizona ranch. As TV anchors and newspaper reporters sipped beer and cocktails under a desert sun, McCain stood at the grill and literally served up their daily nourishment. He is someone you could have a beer with, in stark contrast to Barack Obama, who keeps his press entourage firmly at arm’s length. Yet McCain’s riskier strategy has worked like a dream. Reporters often overlook McCain’s errors and flaps – especially in national security – clinging instead to the narrative of an unconventional patriot. ‘The media love him, especially his war record. He is the GI Joe doll they played with as kids,’ says Professor Shawn Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

There is also a little-reported back-up plan for reporters who do not toe the line: sheer aggression. A recent Washington Post piece on a land deal by one of McCain’s allies prompted a brutal response from the McCain campaign. Without disproving facts, they labelled the story ‘shameful’ and a ‘smear job’. When Newsweek ran a story on the Obama camp’s perception of McCain’s weak spots, McCain’s team struck again. This time the story was ‘offensive’ and ‘scurrilous’. The campaign is willing to strike out abroad, recently persuading one European newspaper editor to scrap a review of Schecter’s book. For the fact is, McCain’s benevolent public image is no accident. It has been carefully crafted and is forcefully policed. ‘This has gone on for years. This is an image he has worked very hard to maintain,’ says Professor Seth Masket of the University of Denver.

John McCain has not always had his own way. His current reformist image was born from a career-threatening scandal that almost saw his political ambitions strangled at birth. It was 1987, and John McCain was a promising newcomer in the Republican party, still finding his feet in a world very different from his military life. Charlie Keating, a wealthy businessman, was a long-time friend and financial contributor to McCain’s campaigns. When Keating was caught up in the disastrous collapse of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, he turned to his political friends, asking them to talk to federal regulators. McCain, along with four others, made the mistake of doing just that. When a massive government bailout of Lincoln followed, so too did public outrage. It almost destroyed McCain’s career. Yet the Keating Five scandal also gave birth to a new John McCain: the reformer. In an astonishing transformation he now became the arch-champion of campaign finance reform.

Yet much of the dark side of John McCain lies behind the closed doors of K Street, a Washington DC boulevard lined with glitzy buildings and home to the capital’s booming lobbyist industry. A close examination of McCain’s campaign workers, political allies and backers reveals a dense world of dubious loyalties, uber-lobbyists and powerful corporate interests. McCain is very much at home with K Street’s sharp-suited denizens, their wealthy clients and their art of influence-peddling.

Take one of McCain’s closest aides and senior counsel, Charlie Black. For decades he worked as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington DC. His firm represented some of the most unpleasant dictators in modern history, among them the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Zaire’s kleptomaniac president Joseph Mobutu. Then there’s Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, the man leading the effort to capture the White House. Davis, too, has been a top lobbyist. His firm’s clients ranged from Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov to telecoms giants such as Comsat and Verizon.

But Black and Davis are far from alone. McCain’s staff was so riddled with lobbyists that at least four have resigned because of their contacts and businesses. They included Doug Goodyear, McCain’s convention chairman, whose company was paid to improve the image of Burma’s brutal dictatorship.

The make-up of McCain’s team has set alarm bells ringing among Washington’s campaign watchdogs. ‘We need to know who is advising the candidates and why,’ says Josh Israel, a lobbyist investigator at the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI). ‘Rather than advising them based on what is good for the candidate or the country, are they instead looking for their other interests?’ McCain’s campaign has even had to bring in special rules to cut down on the number of lobbyists on his team.

Nor is it just campaign workers who have extensive links to the lobbying industry. McCain’s financial backers do, too. A recent survey of 106 elite fundraisers for McCain revealed that one in six were lobbyists. Watchdog groups such as the CPI believe McCain has a long history of helping people who also happen to be his wealthy backers, including several large landowners in Arizona, Nevada and California who have profited from McCain-linked property deals. ‘McCain has a long way to go to line up his reformist image with the actual reality,’ Israel says. Sceptics might conclude that McCain’s post-Keating career represents a cosmetic makeover, not a true conversion.

John McCain is level with Barack Obama in the polls in a year when Democrats should be a certainty. He is even winning in key swing states like Florida. His appeal to America’s middle ground remains strong. These are people like self-confessed moderate Keith Gregory, 24, who filed out of the Denver auditorium as a convert. The young student, dressed in a freshly pressed suit and tie, had been deeply impressed by McCain’s speech. ‘I like him more than before,’ Gregory said. ‘He talked very sensibly and openly about the issues.’ This is McCain’s great strength and also one of his greatest myths. Few see McCain as an ideological warrior in America’s culture wars. Unlike Bush, he is not a born-again Christian. In McCain’s inner circle – unlike Bush’s – there are no group prayer meetings. Yet the reality is that McCain is a social conservative who has actively sought out the far right of his party and forged alliances with Christian extremists.

Just look at McCain’s ‘pastor problems’. He has enthusiastically sought the political blessing of some of the most conservative religious figures in the country. McCain gave the 2006 commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University, a college that has taught creationism alongside science. McCain also courted and won the endorsement of Texan preacher John Hagee, despite Hagee blaming Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’s liberal attitude towards gays. Hagee believes the disaster was God’s judgement on the sinful city. Another McCain-backer, Ohio preacher Rod Parsley, has spouted hate about Muslims. Parsley, whom McCain called a ‘spiritual guide’, believes America was founded partly in order to destroy Islam. He has called Mohammed a ‘mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil’ and has supported prosecuting people who commit adultery. Though McCain later repudiated the endorsements of Parsley and Hagee, he did so only after bad headlines threatened his moderate image. Most of Hagee’s and Parsley’s views were widely known from public speeches or books. It was not their bigotry that caught the campaign out, it was the reporting of it. ‘McCain has had links with these religious figures who are just way, way out of the mainstream,’ says Cliff Schecter.

There are other nasties, too. McCain is friends with G Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate burglars. Liddy, who once plotted to kill a left-wing journalist, has hosted a fundraiser with McCain in his own home. McCain also endorsed and campaigned for Alabama politician George Wallace Jr in 2005, despite Wallace’s links to racist groups. Wallace has praised and spoken at meetings of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-power group that opposes inter-racial marriage and promotes white racial purity. If a moderate voter were seeking to judge a politician by the company he keeps, then McCain keeps some very odd company indeed.

But it is not really that strange. McCain himself holds deeply conservative views, including proposing teaching the creationist idea of Intelligent Design in schools alongside evolution. McCain has also always been anti-abortion. He believes the landmark Roe vs Wade ruling that legalised abortion was a bad decision. McCain has vowed to continue the Bush policy of appointing extreme conservatives to the Supreme Court and many fear a McCain presidency will see Roe vs Wade overturned. ‘McCain is neither moderate nor a maverick when it comes to a woman’s right to choose. He’s just plain wrong,’ said Nancy Keenan, president of abortion rights group Naral.

On the environment, too, McCain is not the green warrior some might think. He has voted against tightening fuel efficiency standards for American cars. The League of Conservation Voters gives McCain an environmental rating of 24 per cent; Obama gets 86 per cent. ‘His rhetoric does not match his voting record on this issue,’ says David Sandretti, a director of the League. ‘McCain is better than Bush, but that’s not much of a yardstick, because the current
president is abysmal.’

But it is not just McCain’s politics that are disturbing. It is his personality, too. For McCain has a secret reputation as a man with a ferocious, unpredictable temper. He is a man who has a knack for pursuing vendettas against those he thinks have slighted him, even if they are lowly aides.

The list of worrying incidents is long. In 1995 he ended up almost physically scuffling with aged Senator Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor. And, according to some accounts, in 2006 he had a fight with Arizona congressman Rick Renzi, throwing blows in a scrap whose details have only recently been detailed in Schecter’s book. Schecter unearthed another unpleasant incident from 1992 in which McCain, tired after a long day’s campaign, reacted badly to his wife Cindy teasing him about his baldness. ‘At least I don’t plaster on the make-up like a trollop, you cunt,’ McCain snapped in front of eyewitnesses. Schecter says he has three sources for the story. McCain’s campaign have denied it.

Such public outbursts, and many other private ones, have concerned people even in his own party. Former New Hampshire Republican Senator Robert Smith publicly voiced his concerns, once saying McCain’s temper ‘ … would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger’. That sentiment was echoed by Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who told a Boston newspaper: ‘The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.’

Yet McCain is still campaigning successfully as the lovable, maverick patriot. It is a strategy his staff believe will win the White House. So the tricks and stunts keep on coming.

A few weeks ago a letter was delivered to Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters. It was from McCain and in gracious language it offered to hold weekly ‘town hall’ meetings across America where he and Obama would appear side by side. It would be a far cry from the rancorous circus of televised debates. The audience would be neutral independents. The questions would be random. It would summon back a golden age of gentlemanly politics. ‘I also suggest we fly together to the first town hall meeting as a symbolically important act embracing the politics of civility,’ McCain wrote.

Like the Denver speech, it was a vintage McCain ploy: superbly geared to his everyman image of decency. But the true McCain is far different. His dark side is real and Democrats will need to expose it if America is to avoid a third successive term of extreme conservative government. Now Democrat activists are pushing out their argument that McCain is a conservative wolf in a moderate sheep’s clothing. They are highlighting the temper, the pro-war ideology and the links to lobbyists. ‘We think he just means four more years of Bush,’ says Karen Finney, a director at the Democratic National Committee. Finney’s job is to convince Americans they have got McCain wrong, that they have been fooled. She and her fellow activists have less than four months to succeed. But for now, as America gears up to one of the most important elections in its history, McCain’s dark side remains largely hidden behind closed doors.

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