The Mark of McCain


It’s November 19, 2004, a mere two weeks after the election that returned George W. Bush to power, and Senator John McCain has traipsed off to New Hampshire to give a speech calling for 50,000 more troops to be sent into the quagmire of Iraq, press flesh and raise money for an expected run at the presidency in 2008. John Sununu, former New Hampshire governor and Bush family consigliere, wryly quipped about McCain’s junket to the Granite State, “What took him so long?”

The press corps, already bored with Bush and election post-mortems, tags along. McCain’s the darling of the moment, the opinion press’s favorite senator, a media-made maverick, who was sedulously courted by both John Kerry and George Bush. McCain, true to form, flirted with them both and sniped at them both, but in the end remained wedded to the GOP, even as the party fell further under the sway of neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists that McCain publicly claims to abhor.

But that’s all part of the McCain profile. He is the senator of the hollow protest. McCain is nothing if not a political stunt man. His chief stunt is the evocation of political piety. From his pulpit in the well of the senate, McCain gestures and fumes about the evils of Pentagon porkbarrel. He rails about useless and expensive weapons systems, contractor malfeasance, and bloated R&B budgets.

But he does nothing about them. McCain pontificates, but never obstructs. Few senators have his political capital. But he does nothing with it. Under the arcane rules of the senate, one senator can gum up the works, derail a bad (or good, though those are increasingly rare in this environment) bill, dislodge non-germane riders, usually loaded with pork, from big appropriations bills. McCain is never that senator. He is content to let ride that which he claims to detest in press releases and senate speeches.

A recent example. In late October, McCain went on 60 Minutes to decry a footnote in the Defense Appropriations Bill of 2004 that transferred billions of dollars from so-called Operations and Maintenance accounts for US troops in Iraq to porkbarrel projects, such as gold mines and museums, in the states of powerful senators. In his stern voice before the cameras, McCain made congressional looting sound like a treasonable offense. But what he failed to disclose is the fact that he actually voted for the bill. Not only that, he was personally approached by each senator who wanted just such a transfer of funds and gave it his seal of approval.

McCain the Maverick is a merely a fine-honed act, underscored by these kinds of casual hypocrisies.

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In the past couple of years, McCain has been portrayed as one of the doves the senate. It’s a stunning transformation and a phony one. Instead, throughout his career in Congress McCain has often been one of the hottest hawks around. During the war on Serbia in 1999, in one rhetorical bombing run after another, McCain bellowed for “lights out in Belgrade” and for NATO to “cream” the Serbs. At the start of May of that year he began declaiming in the US senate for NATO forces to use “any means necessary” to destroy Serbia.

McCain is often called a “war hero”, a title adorning an unlovely resume starting with a father who was an admiral and graduation fifth from the bottom at the US Naval Academy, where he earned the nickname “McNasty”. McCain flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam, each averaging about half an hour, total time ten hours and thirty minutes. For these brief excursions the admiral’s son was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Legion of Honor and three Purple Hearts. US Veteran Dispatch calculates our hero earned a medal an hour, which is pretty good going. McCain was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967 and parachuted into Truc Boch Lake, whence he was hauled by Vietnamese, and put in prison.

A couple of years later he was interviewed in prison camp by Fernando Barral, a Spanish psychiatrist living in Cuba. The interview appeared in Granma on January 24, 1970.

McCain’s fragile psyche runs on what Barral described “the personality of the prisoner who is responsible for many criminal bombings of the people.” Barral went on, “He (McCain) showed himself to be intellectually alert during the interview. From a morale point of view he is not in traumatic shock. He was able to be sarcastic, and even humorous, indicative of psychic equilibrium. From the moral and ideological point of view he showed us he is an insensitive individual without human depth, who does not show the slightest concern, who does not appear to have thought about the criminal acts he committed against a population from the absolute impunity of his airplane, and that nevertheless those people saved his life, fed him, and looked after his health and he is now healthy and strong. I believe that he has bombed densely populated places for sport. I noted that he was hardened, that he spoke of banal things as if her were at a cocktail party.

McCain is deeply loved by the liberal press. As Amy Silverman, a reporter at the Phoenix weekly New Times who has followed the senator for years, puts it, “As long as he’s the noble outsider, McCain can get away with anything it seems — the Keating Five, a drug stealing wife, nasty jokes about Chelsea Clinton — and the pundits will gurgle and coo.”

Indeed they will. William Safire, Maureen Down, Russell Baker, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, have all slobbered over McCain in empurpled prose. The culmination was a love poem from Mike Wallace in 60 Minutes, who managed to avoid any inconvenient mention of McCain’s close relationship with S & L fraudster Charles Keating, with whom the indulgent senator romped on Bahamian beaches. McCain was similarly spared scrutiny for his astonishing claim that he knew nothing of his wife’s scandalous dealings.

McCain’s escape from the Keating debacle is nothing short of miraculous and it’s probably the activity for which he most deserves a medal. After all, he took more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the swindler Keating between 1982 and 1988, while simultaneously logrolling for Keating on Capitol Hill. In the same period McCain took nine trips to Keating’s place in the Bahamas.

When the muck began to rise, McCain threw Keating over the side, hastily reimbursed Keating for the trips and suddenly developed a profound interest in campaign finance and reform.

Yet McCain is legendary among those who have worked with him for a pathologically vicious temper, also for his skill in adopting apparently principled stands which are never exposed to any rigorous test.

The pundits love McCain because of his grandstanding on soft money’s baneful role in politics, thus garnering for himself a reputation for willingness to court the enmity of his colleagues.

In fact, colleagues in the Senate accurately regard McCain as a mere grandstander. They know that he already has a big war chest left over from the corporations that crave his indulgence, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Communications companies (US West, Bell South, ATT, Bell Atlantic have been particularly effusive in McCain’s treasury, as have banks, military contractors and UPS. They also know he has a rich wife and the certain knowledge that his supposed hopes for an end to soft money spending will never receive any practical legislative application.

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John McCain says he models himself after TR. “I’m a Teddy Roosevelt kind of Republican”, McCain told a crowd of about 1,000 people in East Lansing, Michigan. “I believe America needs a strong leader. And most Republicans take in pride in identifying with TR, who believed that second only to the national defense, one of our most important public duties is to wisely husband the country’s natural resources. Like TR I’ll be the kind of president who will have the courage stand up to the special interests and no. There are some things they just can’t have.” The crowd of students plus those elusive Reagan Democrats cheered lustily as McCain raised his arms in his now customary crimped victory salute.

Two days later McCain was in Spokane, capital of Washington’s Inland Empire, where the Republican Party is dominated by big timber, big agriculture and the hydro-power conglomerate that includes the aluminum factories, the barge fleets and the pulp mills. Over his 18-year career in the House and Senate John McCain has rarely let them down. He has supported property rights legislation, backed the salvage logging rider, fought measures for stricter control over pesticides and harshly denounced proposals to breach dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to save endangered salmon.

Even in that crowd, McCain claimed to be a conservationist: “It’s possible for a conservative president to be an environmentalist.” So the question is what kind of environmentalist is John McCain?

McCain has confused many observers. Even staunchly Democratic organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters, can’t seem to find it in themselves to pin him down on the environment. The League’s profile of McCain notes that “on most issues dealing with Arizona, National Park protection and auto-efficiency standards, his record ranges from good to excellent”. But the group’s own annual ranking (heavily prejudiced against Republicans, it must be admitted) gives the Arizona senator a lifetime rating of only 20 per cent. Several years he rated a zero.

When he’s out West, McCain is fond of saying that his political mentor was Barry Goldwater. But McCain is no Goldwater. And that’s not a compliment. Goldwater was, essentially, a western populist, a Libertarian version of Mike Mansfield, Lee Metcalf and Frank Church. Goldwater always had a passion for the outdoors and in the end singled out as his greatest political regret his vote to authorize the construction of Glen Canyon dam. McCain is not one for searing self-scrutiny. As with the rest of his political agenda, McCain’s environmentalism has always been pointedly opportunistic. Voting for a popular Arizona wilderness bill when he faced a tough election. Introducing legislation at the behest of local businesses to limit overflights of planes and helicopters at Grand Canyon National Park. Perhaps, this is a sign for optimism. After all, he isn’t a Wise-Use ideologue.

McCain tends to analyze the polls with an obsessiveness comparable to the Clintons. Of particular interest has been Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s work, which shows that upwards of 70 per cent of Republicans favor strong environmental laws and increased funding for national parks. The environment, in other words, might be a wedge issue, one that can win over independents, Reagan Democrats, Republican moderates and women. Hence, a recent McCain speech on the environment in San Diego, where he thundered, “Republicans have to do a lot more than they are doing today on the environment.” Aside from generic calls to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (which gets its money from royalties from offshore oil drilling), McCain tends to leave the particulars fuzzy.

Of course, McCain is hardly alone in this regard, of course. Indeed, on a bad day he can even sound a bit like Hillary Clinton. “One area I believe we must focus upon is to ensure that our laws and rules are more performance-based and that we focus better on outcomes rather than means,” McCain writes on his webpage. “To that end we should work to instill greater flexibility to employ new approaches to meeting our standards and environmental goals.”

His votes in the Senate have gone somewhat beyond “greater flexibility”, embracing takings legislation, opening of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and Bob Dole’s regulatory reform bill.

When the interests of the military and the environment come into conflict, as often happens in the Western states, there’s no question where John McCain stands. In 1993, McCain placed a hold on the nomination of Mollie Beatie, Clinton’s choice to head the Fish and Wildlife Service. McCain had been told by his buddies in the Marine Air Corps that the Fish and Wildlife Service planned to halt low-level flights above the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve, near Yuma, Arizona. McCain’s strong-arm tactics worked. Bruce Babbitt sent the senator a letter pledging that the military fly-bys would not be impeded. With this easy victory conquest of Babbitt under his belt, McCain struck again the following year, when he placed a rider onto the California Desert Preservation Act, allowing military flights over the wilderness areas and national preserves created by the act. Now, McCain shouldn’t be forced to shoulder all the blame for that one. His amendment was fondly received by the bill’s author, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had already perverted the bill by permitting mining claims inside in the so-called national preserve.

In 1999 McCain attached a rider to the Defense Appropriations bill that would have permanently transferred to the Pentagon 7.2 million acres of federal wildlife refuge land managed by the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where they would become used as a bombing range and a testing ground for a new generation of missiles. McCain’s rider exempted the military from conducting any environmental review of its programs.

One of the issues that divides the often united Western delegation is the Department of Energy’s plan to bury the nation’s commercial nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain, an earthquake prone region on Shoshone lands in western Nevada. The plan, dubbed “mobile Chernobyl”, sets up an MX missile system for nuclear waste, with trains shipping the radioactive materials from across the country on a maze of rail routes. McCain, happy to keep the waste out of Arizona, enthusiastically supports the scheme. And he backs the creation of even more nuclear waste by standing forth as one of the nuclear power industry’s most reliable allies. “While waste and proliferation issues present unique challenges, nuclear energy can play a key role in reducing pollution emissions and controlling releases of carbon dioxide.”

“If there’s one thing we know about McCain, it’s that he can’t be trusted”, says Roger Featherstone, director of the GREEN, an Albuqueque, New Mexico environmental group. “Anybody who promotes McCain is environmentalist is either an idiot or a liar.” Much of the blame for McCain’s reputation can be laid to our gullible press. Living on Earth, the NPR environmental show, recently produced a puff piece touting McCain as the Senate’s most environmentally conscious Republican. Of course, most of McCain’s act is scripted for the photo op. When the chips are on the table, McCain can be counted on to do the bidding of industry. Take the issue of subsidies. In 1996, McCain introduced a bill that would have slashed corporate welfare, including millions in subsidies to big timber in form of federally funded logging roads. The measure was enthusiastically received by liberals and the Washington press corps, which wasted no time hailing McCain as a “maverick” and a “renegade Republican”. But a few months later McCain had the opportunity to make part of his plan reality, but he defected, voting against a measure offered by then-Senator Richard Bryant, the Nevada Democrat, that would have eliminated the very same timber road subsidies. McCain didn’t explain his flip-flop.

McCain played a malign role in one of Arizona’s most controversial issues, the mad scheme by the University of Arizona to erect seven deep space telescopes on national forest lands at the summit of Mt. Graham. Mt. Graham is known as a sky island, a lush montane oasis rising out of the Sonoran desert. In its upper reaches, Mt. Graham is cloaked in a dense alpine spruce-fir forest unique in the world. It is home to more than 18 endangered plants and animals, the most famous of which is the Mt. Graham red squirrel, found nowhere else. Mt. Graham is not only an ecological marvel, it is also a sacred mountain to the San Carlos Apache.

Neither of these factors carried weight with McCain, who was hell-bent on doing favors for the University. He duly introduced legislation exempting the $520 million project from compliance with the Endangered Species Act, Antiquities Act and the Native American Religious Freedom Act.

In the spring of 1989, the Forest Service began to raise questions about the project. Worried about the impacts on the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel, Jim Abbott, the supervisor of the Coronado National Forest, ordered a halt to road construction at the site. The delay infuriated McCain. On May 17, 1989, Abbott got a call from Mike Jimenez, McCain’s chief of staff. Jimenez told Abbot that McCain was angry and wanted to meet with him the next day. He told Abbott to expect “some ass-chewing”. At the meeting, McCain raged, threatening Abbott that “if you do not cooperate on this project [bypassing the Endangered Species Act], you’ll be the shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service.” Unfortunately for McCain, there was a witness to this encounter, a ranking Forest Service employee named Richard Flannelly, who recorded the encounter in his notebook. This notebook was later turned over to investigators at the GAO.

A few days later, McCain called Abbott to apologize. But the call sounded more like an attempt to bribe the Forest Supervisor to go along with the project. According to a 1990 GAO report on the affair, McCain “held out a carrot that with better cooperation, he would see about getting funding for Mr. Abbott’s desired recreation projects”. Environmentalists attempted to bring an ethics complaint against McCain, citing a federal law that prohibits anyone (including members of Congress) from browbeating federal agency personnel. The Senate ethics committee never pursued the matter. When the GAO report, condemning McCain, surfaced publicly, McCain lied about the encounter, calling the allegations “groundless” and “silly”

In 1992, Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman went to meet with McCain at his office in Phoenix to discuss Mt. Graham. Silver and Witzeman are both physicians. Witzeman is now retired and Silver works in the emergency room at Phoenix hospital. The doctors say that at the mention of the words Mount Graham McCain erupted into a violent fit. “He slammed his fists on his desk, scattering papers across the room”, Silver tells us. “He jumped up and down, screaming obscenities at us for at least 10 minutes. He shook his fists as if he was going to slug us. It was as violent as almost any domestic abuse altercation.”

Witzeman left the meeting stunned: “I’m a lifelong environmentalist, but what really scares me about McCain is not his environmental policies, which are horrid, but his violent, irrational temper. I think McCain is so unbalanced that if Vladimir Putin told him something he didn’t like he’d lose it, start beating his chest about having his finger on the nuclear trigger. Who knows where it would stop. To my mind, McCain’s the most likely senator to start a nuclear war.”

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3