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The Myth of a Maverick
By Matt Welch
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Matt Welch
All rights reserved.
COWBOYS AND INDIANS
Robert Jordan, with his fearlessness, with his service to a flawed cause, with his courage and his self-confidence but yet his fatalism, was everything I ever wanted to be in life. And he was as real to me as any real person that I've ever known ... [He was] willing to fight and die for what he believed in, die for his comrades and, by the way, also have a wonderful love affair with a beautiful Spanish girl.
—John McCain, Air Talk, KPCC-FM 89.3 Los Angeles, Nov. 8, 2002
The whole thing has the too-perfect felicity of a youthful erotic dream.
—Edmund Wilson, The New Republic, October 1940
The question from the audience would have been a slam-dunk for John McCain eight years ago: What would you do to include moderate Republicans and to bring back to the party those independents who were formerly registered Republicans? It was at the end of the third GOP presidential debate in 2007, in the independent-minded state of New Hampshire that had given McCain his storybook upset victory in January 2000, and the candidates were trying to cram in their best closing sound bites. San Diego Congressman and presidential long shot Duncan Hunter, a Vietnam vet and border-fence hawk who earlier in the year won a straw poll of Republican activists in McCain's home county of Maricopa, Arizona (the local boy finishing a dismal fourth), used the opportunity to call front-runners Rudolph Giuliani, McCain and Mitt Romney a bunch of damned Teddy Kennedys. Given chances to respond, the triumvirate of "Rudy McRomney" all ignored Hunter's immoderate baiting and addressed the underlying query. Well, sort of.
"Protect the family, that's one of the questions earlier," McCain said distractedly when it came his turn. "Protect our American family; it's under assault in many respects, as we all know." Not even a gift-wrapped opportunity to reinforce his considerable independent bonafides was going to deter McCain from the urgent business of throwing more red meat to a GOP base long suspicious of his conservatism. Even more interesting, though, was the way he chose to wrap up his pitch. After talking about the "transcendent struggle" against "radical Islamic extremism," he said: "I am prepared to lead. My life and my experience and my background and my heroes inspire me and qualify me to lead in this titanic struggle." (Emphasis added.)
Everybody has heroes. Some of us (including Giuliani and former New Yorker editor Tina Brown) list McCain among them. But does the quality of our chosen inspiration "qualify" us for the highest office in the land? McCain apparently takes that curious notion seriously enough that he made the same comment on Bill O'Reilly's TV show just days before ("I believe my whole life, my inspiration, my heroes, and my experience have qualified me to serve"), then quickly sent out press releases highlighting that line, and repeated the idea yet again in interviews just following the New Hampshire debate. Such is the senator's fixation on role models that his three most recent (and least readable) books—Why Courage Matters (2004), Character Is Destiny (2005), and Hard Call (2007)—are all collections of heartfelt mini-hagiographies glorifying the people who have inspired him most. More than just about any other contemporary politician, McCain's heroes are fundamental to his political persona and sense of self. So just who are these people?
Drunks, bastards, rule-breakers, cold warriors, coaches, Vietnam vets and martyrs, mostly. (Many, especially members of his family, belong to multiple categories.) But the oddest wing in the McCain pantheon is one that might best be labeled "fictional characters from macho melodramas about pre-World War II warfare." Prominent among them is Marlon Brando's brown-face characterization of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in McCain's favorite film, Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! Even more central to his life is a figure that sprang from the fertile and romantic imagination of Teddy Roosevelt's most literarily accomplished fan, Ernest Hemingway.
"The first hero of mine outside of my father and grandfather," McCain told radio interviewer Larry Mantle in 2002, "[was] Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls." Jordan, a stoic American who volunteered to blow up Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, was no mere boyhood fling. Hemingway's blockbuster remains McCain's favorite novel, his go-to recommendation for the accurate depiction of war, and an ongoing source of comportmental inspiration. "There is nobody I'd rather be than Robert Jordan," he told the Arizona Daily Star in 2002. His political memoir, Worth the Fighting For, devotes its entire second chapter to the Montana writer-turned resourceful guerilla fighter clearly recognizable as Hemingway's idealized alter-ego. "For a long time, Robert Jordan was the man I admired above almost all others in life and fiction," McCain writes. "He was and remains to my mind a hero for the twentieth century." In fact, the purple title of McCain's memoir comes from the final chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Jordan tries to stave off death long enough to machine-gun down the soldiers pursuing his comrades: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it."
McCain encountered Robert Jordan at an opportune time. He was 12 years old and had finally settled down in Arlington, Virginia, after spending most of his early childhood as an itinerant navy brat. The future presidential wannabe was actually born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 (he's eligible for the White House since his parents were U.S. citizens) and lived stints in naval pit stops like Long Beach, Coronado and New London. His taciturn father, a submarine commander, had been absent during the war and distant upon return. And young John McCain's first great hero, his grandfather Admiral John Sidney "Slew" McCain, had died just days before John III's ninth birthday.
Slew sounds like basically the best grandpa ever, minus the early death. "In today's slang, he lived large," McCain wrote in Faith of My Fathers. "He smoked, swore, drank and gambled at every opportunity he had." He was a wiry, hook-nosed runt with a booming voice, scrappy energy, and natural ease with enlisted men (his underlings called him "Popeye the Sailor Man"). He was notoriously disheveled, with false wooden teeth he'd take out to horrify the grandkids, and a beat-up old cap that his great friend Admiral Bull Halsey called "The most disreputable one I ever saw on an officer." He hunted and fished, rolled his cigarettes with one hand, and spent his spare time at the racetrack, sometimes dragging along McCain's equally vivacious mother Roberta, "who was enchanted by him." When advised once about a new treatment for his presumably persistent ulcers, legend has it that Slew yelled, "Not one dime of my money for doctors. I'm spending it all on riotous living!" He rode in Teddy Roosevelt's globe-spanning Great White Fleet, escorted supply ships to Europe during World War I, learned to fly at age 52 to qualify for aircraft carrier command, and sunk hundreds of Japanese ships during World War II. Between the wars he served—just as his son and grandson eventually would—at key bureaucratic posts in Washington, D.C., navigating the minefield of Beltway politics to effect lasting change on how the Navy is organized. Though little Johnny didn't know it at the time, Slew was also a prolific and mostly amateur writer, penning technical essays about force structure, unpublished novels about the Ku Klux Klan fighting communism in New York City, and polemics against the prohibition of alcohol and gambling.
"My memories of him are few but vivid," McCain wrote in the introduction to the Slew McCain biography A Leader Born. "My mother would rouse us from our beds and hurry us downstairs for a few stolen moments and a quick snapshot with our busy grandfather. He would greet us as effusively as ever, tease our grogginess away with his high spirits, joke and kid with us for a few minutes, tell us not to be any trouble to our mother, and then, as he gave us a few quick pats on the head, he would make for the door and the waiting car outside that would carry him back to a world at war. After I returned to bed, unable to sleep, I would imagine our next meeting when I might be able to coax a few war stories out of the old man."
That's a hard act to follow, and John McCain Jr. (known more commonly as "Jack") seemed haunted, if determined, by the challenge. (He would manage to eventually surpass his father in flag rank, rising to the second most prestigious position in the Navy.) To this day John III understandably identifies much more with his swashbuckling grandfather than his dutiful dad. "As a boy and a young man," he wrote in Faith of My Fathers, "I found the attitude his image conveyed irresistible. Perhaps not consciously, I spent much of my youth—and beyond—exaggerating that attitude, too much for my own good, and my family's peace of mind." The tension between McCain's Slew-inspired rambunctiousness, his more maternal sense of ambition, and his father's iron commitment to honor has been gnawing at his soul ever since.
After grandpa left the picture, there was a glaring lack of available male role models. "The relationship of a sailor and his children is, in large part, a metaphysical one," McCain wrote wistfully in Faith of My Fathers. "As any other child would, I resented my father's absences, interpreting them as a sign that he loved his work more than his children." Striving to please his dad eventually became his greatest motivation as a naval aviator. And in a twist only a Greek tragedian could love, the biggest single point of pride McCain takes in his dad's long military record is the fact that he ordered Hanoi to be bombed by low-accuracy B-52s even though he knew his imprisoned son was in the line of fire. "That is a very hard decision for a father to make," he wrote, with staggering understatement, in Character Is Destiny. "The memory of him and the example he set for me helped to form my own conscience, and shame me when I disobey it. I don't think there is anything greater a parent can do for you."
Years later, McCain made the great symbolic step of retiring from the Navy on the same day of his father's funeral (he died a young but decrepit 70). As John Karaagac observed in the useful and rarely referenced John McCain: An Essay in Military and Political History, "McCain's own political career was characterized by a strong identification with established, almost quasi-father figures—John Tower certainly, perhaps Ronald Reagan, and, to a lesser extent, Barry Goldwater." A metaphysical paterfamilias was enough to keep McCain in the family's line of work, but not enough to fire his restless imagination.
Into this void strode the muscular charms of Ernest Hemingway. In his too-perfect telling, the always-superstitious McCain one day found not one but two four-leaf clovers in his Arlington front yard, and then, he explains, "[I] raced into the house and headed straight for my father's study, where I grabbed the first book I could reach off his library shelves to press my prize in." That book was For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway's sober, mid-career meditation on the confusions of the Spanish Civil War, focusing on the last three days in the life of an explosives expert who becomes increasingly convinced that his latest assignment will end in death. McCain says he opened the book to a particularly gruesome flashback scene in which Spanish revolutionaries formed a gantlet outside a town hall to bludgeon local leaders—including a priest—and toss them over a cliff. "The chapter ... should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting," McCain wrote. "But it cast an immediate spell on me."
Robert Jordan, if he had been real, would have been one of the estimated 1,000 American volunteers who died in Spain fighting on the side of the Republican (and largely communist) revolutionaries, in a losing battle against General Francisco Franco's Hitler-backed Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War was an initially bracing, eventually bewildering 1930s cause célèbre among European and American intellectuals, Hemingway included, in which World War II's seemingly inevitable battle lines of fascism vs. communism drew first blood and tested out weapons. Many writers and former pacifists signed up for the cause, most enduringly a grim young British socialist and unsuccessful novelist named Eric Blair (pen name George Orwell), whose Homage to Catalonia, a nonfiction account of his comrades and the treacherous political intrigues he observed within the anti-Fascist factions, has long since lapped Hemingway's runaway bestseller in critical estimation.
But McCain wasn't, and isn't, very interested in all of that. For the 12-year-old boy and 70-year-old man alike, the political machinations in Madrid were noteworthy mostly in that they didn't discourage Jordan from carrying out a mission he knew to be futile. "They were dedicated to the cause," he wrote in Worth the Fighting For, "willing to sacrifice their lives for it, but vulnerable to disappointment at the hands of cynical politicians who controlled their fate and the weary realism of the people they had come to save. Their heroism was a beautiful fatalism."
It's hard to read that paragraph without thinking about Vietnam. Or even Iraq. There is something especially noble and professional about a soldier not wavering in his duty when the cause isn't necessarily just or well-thought out, the civilian leadership is corrupt and the natives aren't particularly grateful. As McCain put it in a May 2007 Wall Street Journal piece, the novel "helped bring home to me one of the fundamentals of military experience: what it is that moves soldiers in battle." When all else fails, there is not the tragedy of soldiers being used as political pawns, but the bond of brothers, and of the ideals they share, just as there was when McCain hit rock bottom in Hanoi after taping his confession. "In the end, Jordan voluntarily sacrifices his life for the sake of the people he fought alongside, the people he had come to love."
But even though it looks like the perfect Vietnam allegory—McCain even once told an interviewer, "I knew that Robert Jordan, if he were in the next cell to mine, he would be heroic.... He would be stoic, he wouldn't give up; and Robert would expect me to do the same thing"—it doesn't mean his For Whom the Bell Tolls obsession is a product of the Hanoi Hilton. When seeing or listening to interviews with the senator about Hemingway's story, it's apparent that what really gets his pulse up is not the tragedy of the soldiers being used as political pawns, but the utter romantic hopelessness of it all. "They were doomed to failure," he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press in 2002. "But he still went to blow the bridge ... in an attack that he knew could not succeed. It's a—it's a wonderful story."
McCain is the patron saint of lost causes. Aside from his controversial Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which finally squeaked through in 2002 after a quixotic, seven-year struggle, the bills he is most famous for all failed: the line-item veto that the Supreme Court struck down in 1998, the never-passed $1.10-a-pack tobacco tax he proposed the same year, and 2007's comprehensive immigration reform debacle. Every year McCain stands up on the Senate floor to denounce line items of congressional pork; every year the budgets pass and the earmarks continue to increase. Rather than discourage him, setbacks and long odds put a noticeable spring in his step, while victory leaves him uncertain.
David Grann, one of the few reporters to write perceptively about McCain's psyche during the Straight Talk Express days, noted in The New Republic back then that the candidate looked deathly the night he won New Hampshire, and positively buoyant when he got drubbed in South Carolina (to the point that he was trying to cheer up a despondent press corps). "Is McCain trying to lose?" Grann asked in his analysis. The question has come up again this year. When the buzzards were circling Bob Dole's run in 1996, it was Senator McCain who jumped on the campaign trail and kept his friend in good spirits to the bitter end. "Beautiful fatalism" for the Arizona senator is not just a throwaway phrase; it's a credo to live by. For Whom the Bell Tolls is almost leaden in its portent of constantly foreshadowed death. Twelve-year-old John must have giggled while reading it.
The McCain household was fertile soil for the romance of battlefield fatalism, preferably exercised in faraway lands full of beautiful women. Presuming the worst is almost an act of self-preservation when your family business is war and fighting is a question of when, not if. McCain's forebears, "bred to fight as Highland Scots," include John's great-great-grandfather William Alexander McCain (who died in the Civil War), and William's three sons—Henry Pinckney McCain, father of the Selective Service; Confederate solider Joseph Watt McCain; and great-grandfather John Sidney McCain, who was too young to fight in the Civil War but served as a sheriff and raised his two sons to be military officers. That first John Sidney McCain married a woman who the senator says had an even more militaristic family background, and together they produced his four-star admiral of a grandfather and the notorious Wild Bill McCain, an Army cavalryman who chased Pancho Villa around through Mexico.
Excerpted from McCain by Matt Welch. Copyright © 2007 Matt Welch. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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