If John Kerry is called a flip-flopper, how should one characterize John McCain?
The son and grandson of Admirals, John McCain goes out to Vietnam as a Navy pilot, gets shot down over North Vietnam, and spends the next several years as an unbending POW. He returns home a hero. This is in the early 70’s.
Cut forward to 2000. Now in his third term, Senator John McCain runs for President, only to find his campaign baffled by an opponent, George W. Bush, over whom he towers in every respect except for the small matter of the campaign war chest.
To make up for the war glory deficit — for McCain has a long record in Vietnam and later leads a campaign for finding MIA’s in South East Asia, while Bush did not go to Vietnam and is MIA from nothing fancier than the Texas Air National Guard — the Bush campaign seeks to tar McCain using all available means, its surrogates letting it fall that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi child is actually an illegitimate black baby he has fathered.
McCain skirts issues like the racial bias of Bob Jones University and the Confederate flag in South Carolina, an avoidance he later acknowledges as cowardly. Finally, throwing in the electoral towel in the face of an insuperable Bush fundraising tsunami, he endorses his erstwhile slanderer and campaigns for him like a good soldier during the general election of 2000.
Post election, an organized voter disenfranchisement effort comes to light in Florida. This reputed voice of conscience, a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows, remains unperturbed. He is certainly not about to lend his signature (one signature from one senator would have done) to a move by the Congressional Black Caucus to force a discussion of the disenfranchisement before the ratification of George W. Bush’s “election”. The scene in Congress, as those seeking justice for the thousands of people wrongly denied the vote thrash about in vain for one lone senator’s signature, surely ranks as one of the most poignant moments of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11. Anyway, Mr. Conscience’s conscience gives him no trouble here (to be fair, neither indeed did Mr. Kerry’s or Mr. Edwards’).
A professed fiscal conservative and deficit hawk, McCain is one of two Republicans voting against the Bush Tax Cut of 2001. He also works against the White House to pilot the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act.
Then comes 9-11. The White House pushes through sweeping curtailments of liberties, but McCain, who worships Barry Goldwater and casts himself as a plain speaking frontiersman from the West who loves freedom and liberty, votes for the Patriot Act.
He then proceeds to furiously look the other way as the White House “Fact” Factory sends forth one false reason after another to invade Iraq, pausing only to offer support to the pushing of the War (along with one Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat). Here is a brief record of McCain’s votes during those crucial days:
–Byrd’s Proposal to Require Bush to Seek Additional Congressional Authority if Bush’s War Was to Exceed Two Years (10/10/2002). McCain votes to Reject.
–Byrd’s Proposal Rejecting Preemptive War, Regardless of Whether it is Unilateral or Multilateral (10/10/2002). McCain votes to Reject.
–Durbin’s Proposal for a Multilateral Preemptive War (10/10/2002). McCain votes to Reject.
–Authorization for Preemptive War Against Iraq (10/11/2002). McCain votes For, pushing and piloting the bill assiduously.
The war rolls on, and this proclaimed guardian of the interests of fighting men and women cannot find it in himself to criticize his own cupidity in believing the White House and sending hundreds of American soldiers to their doom in a war over supposed weapons of mass destruction that a year later are still unfound. If questioned, he too is comfortable mouthing the non-answer, “the world is better off with Saddam gone”.
Then, in 2004, McCain suddenly appears to wake up to the fact that the White House is not to be deviated from its true agenda (tax cuts), Iraq or no Iraq. He says something in opposition and is roundly ridiculed by Dennis Hastert, who questions whether he is even a Republican, hinting that McCain is unpatriotic for suggesting that foregoing the tax cut would be a small sacrifice on the part of the wealthy. “If he wants to see sacrifice”, Hastert claims with a straight face, “John McCain ought to go and visit the young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda”. You can’t argue with logic like that.
The Bush administration, of course, sides with Hastert (who is, after all, only carrying its water).
Into the middle of all this wades John F. Kerry, Democratic nominee. Said Antony, “You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse…” Except in McCain’s case, Kerry might have said it was more like seven times. A private approach (inevitably leaked) would be made for McCain to join the Kerry ticket, and a markedly public rejection would issue forth promptly from McCain.
Whatever hold Bush has on McCain, it is obviously quite potent. Potent enough to get McCain to accompany him to a thinly veiled campaign appearance at a military base in Washington state, and introduce him to the audience. And last week, McCain appeared in a campaign commercial for Bush. There are now rumors that Bush might drop Cheney and saddle up with McCain as his running mate. What’s a slander or two between fellow Republicans?
In India, they speak of an unpredictable person as a Bharatpuri Lota, a reference to the round-bottomed vessel prone to tilt unexpectedly in any direction — a hazard for anyone seeking to use it for their ablutions. The American moniker, ‘maverick’, which McCain has accrued, is by comparison far more polished and respectable. Even ‘loose cannon’ hardly approaches the lota in conjuring up the nature of McCain’s role these last few years.
For all that, there is a method to McCain’s instability. When the chips are down, he reverts to the disciplined apparatchik, with the much-bandied conscience neatly folded away for a more opportune time. In all of history, there have been such enablers who, by their support in critical moments, confer a vague legitimacy to regimes which by any reasonable reckoning should have long forfeited it. Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer winning book on the Civil Rights movement was called “Parting the Waters”. John McCain’s inevitable next work would be aptly titled, “Muddying the Waters”.