It is strange how a Bangladeshi child can have a disproportionately large effect on the electoral fate of a Republican presidential primary. Yet in 2000, let’s just say it was Bangladesh: 1, McCain: 0. Yes, few people recall that it was John and Cindy McCain’s adopted baby, the one and only “black baby,” that scandalized Republican base voters and tipped the scales of fate against the poor, ill-destined candidate from Arizona. Phantom black babies aside, the cause of McCain’s failed bid amounted to more than an unaired “dancing baby” Ally McBeal episode.
McCain was a maverick. He bucked the system. He made unconventional comments; he stuck it to the man. “Chelsea Clinton is ugly because Janet Reno is her father.” Yes, he said that. No, he would not apologize. And Americans liked that. It was new, it was fresh and it was vaguely sexy. But he lost. Because the only thing sexier than when someone sticks it to the man, is when the man sticks it back to him. George W. Bush and his brilliant, if morally allergic, team of political animals he had behind him stuck it to McCain – and hard.
This point is in the past tense. If you haven’t noticed, the McCain of late is not a maverick. He and the system do lunch. He is conventional, to the point of awkwardness. He may still find Chelsea Clinton ugly (most likely not, as she’s really come into her own), but damned if he would let us in on it. McCain describes his relationship with the president as “friendly,” which seems strange considering the man made media fare of his wife’s drug problems and suggested that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child. And the whole anti-extremist, “agents of intolerance” thing? That was so six years ago. Sure, Falwell thinks gays brought on 9/11…but honestly, didn’t we all? Those lesbians and their madrasses, just can’t tear them away. As McCain cozies to these fringe elements, conceivably to satiate his party base, one can’t help but wonder where the values went.
This is where you might expect this to veer into a polemic against John McCain, but you have, unfortunately, found yourself with yet another liberal who cannot help but like him. There are politically feasible reasons. McCain in office could create a centrist shift in the Republican Party similar to the Clinton Effect Democrats saw in the 90s. But in an “I care about character” vein, I think that more than the Maverick McCain, the Mainstream incarnation is an intriguing example of courage in politics—something that is vitally lacking. This is perverse, you may claim. You are reaching for straws, you are wild, Max, and you are spinning out of control. Calm down, compadre, I have my reasons.
It’s not surprising that being a maverick may have been what endeared McCain to many people in his first bid. The outsider position has always been prime real estate for capturing the hearts and minds of the American people. Jimmy Carter is an obvious example, and even the lovable lost cast member of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Howard Dean, was admired for his position outside the system. John McCain, unlike many outsider candidates, had a little more substance behind his rebel yells. A Vietnam veteran and an accomplished and upstanding senator, McCain was not an empty threat. He consistently makes manifest his dedication to the ideals which he touts.
This is why I am not given to take such grave pause at his recent unsavory associations and concessions. As esoterically attracted as Americans are to mavericks, they rarely elect them to the highest office. McCain’s recent posturing is just that: posturing. And it is necessary posturing for a candidate who faces a war-weary and distrustful electorate. As the 2004 election proved, “anyone but Bush” is not enough. We are tired, we are teetering on the edge of disillusionment, but the last thing we are willing to do is to throw the reigns to some reckless child. We are not asking for a revolutionary, we are asking for someone we can trust. And as much as we admire a maverick, he is the last place we will invest our confidence. So McCain must temper his maverick reputation to be seriously acceptable to the electorate in 2008.
What makes this necessary political positioning courageous? You can find your answer in this painfully awkward interview with the senator:
JOHN MCCAIN: I had to get over [the Bush attacks in 2000]. And I got over it, and I don’t look back in anger. I look back as running for president as the greatest experience of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s one thing to get over it. It’s another to stand with and campaign with the man who did it to you, George Bush.
JOHN MCCAIN: I put it behind me. I put it behind me. Absolutely, we have a very good, friendly relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: Has he ever explained himself to you, why he attacked your wife, Cindy, and your kid?
JOHN MCCAIN: I can only––my discussions with the president are private. Okay? Thanks, good.
Clearly, John McCain is not comfortable in his new role as the Administration’s cheerleader. His brusque responses might just mean he is a terrible actor, but at the very least it shows he is acting. But if John McCain does not like the positive pose, he is forcing himself to strike it for a larger goal: to be the President, and what is more, to do what he can to make America better. If John McCain really is a principled and moral man—which I believe him to be—publicly compromising these principles is not easy. That is the unique species of courage which good people who are politicians must demonstrate, and it is a courage people are reticent to value.
It is a great man who will sacrifice the ability to look at himself in the mirror out of a love for something larger than himself. Even though I’m a narcissist, the sacrifice of endless self-adoration is not lost on me, and it should not be lost on you either. To be constantly uncomfortable, to constantly compromise what you know is right because of a mere chance you might be able to help someone further down the line is a noble commitment, even if it doesn’t immediately appear so.
The proverbial maverick has the luxury of his morality. In his all-too-frequent losses, he can find solace in the fact that he “stood up for what he believed in”. McCain has compromised his beliefs. As a result, he has forgone the ethical comfort of maverickhood. The end of the 2008 contest can yield either the Oval Office or sleepless nights in Arizona. So I commend him for his willingness to surrender something so essential to find his calling and ultimately help others. The big risk in McCain’s gamble is irrevocably losing himself and his values in the political game. This means we can only pray for more uncomfortable and defensive interviews that show he is not becoming too cozy in his new role—the only thing worse than a phantom black baby, is phantom morality. Let’s hope the latter one doesn’t materialize.