Edward McClelland: Who is the real John McCain?

Roundup: Media's Take

Twenty or 30 years from now, John McCain will occupy the same historical niche as John Kerry, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Wendell Willkie, in my opinion: a decent guy who never made it to the White House.

McCain has run for the presidency twice, as two completely different candidates. His campaigns and his image have been shaped by the nasty partisanship of the late 20th and early 21st century, an era that may be remembered as the Late Culture Wars. McCain has never seemed comfortable with that style of politics. Despite his identification as a conservative, he's been willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats who shared his concept of reform. In 2000, McCain tried to be a liberal's conservative, holding stream-of-consciousness press conferences on his bus, bashing right-wing preachers as "agents of intolerance" and opposing repeal of Roe v. Wade. Republicans were unimpressed, so when McCain finally won their nomination, he picked as his running mate a woman who had less than two years' experience as a governor -- a woman young enough to be his daughter, or his third wife, even -- but who belongs to a Pentecostal church, baits the Washington media and wouldn't allow any woman to have an abortion.

McCain, who built his image on bipartisanship, is now finding he can only rally Republicans by campaigning as a Deep Red partisan. That conflict -- between his sense of self and the role he's playing to win the election -- may account for the fact that he's been melting down like HAL 9000 lately. The old McCain would never have threatened to cancel a debate, or run an ad comparing his opponent to Britney Spears. But the old McCain never won the Republican nomination.

When scholars of the Obama presidency try to answer the question "Who Was John McCain?" -- or, more pointedly, "Who Were the Two John McCains?" -- they should start by reading what journalists had to say about him. Four new books about McCain, by four liberal authors, show how difficult it's been for a politician with middle-of-the-road instincts to operate in a polarized era. Writers loved McCain during his first run for the presidency, in 2000. But eight years later, they think he's a flip-flopping hack.

Consider "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope," by David Foster Wallace -- effectively the last book Wallace published, though it's actually the unedited version of an article that appeared in Rolling Stone. During the 2000 Republican primaries, Wallace spent a week aboard McCain's campaign bus, which was nicknamed the "Straight Talk Express" because the candidate loved to hold bull sessions with reporters in an on-board press lounge.

Wallace didn't get much straight talk -- as a writer for a magazine with an un-Republican readership, he was exiled to a trailing vehicle known as "Bullshit #1," where he spent most of his time hanging out with the TV cameramen. A McCain staffer nearly faked a seizure to avoid giving him an interview. Still, his book is worth reading because it provides context for the press's eventual disenchantment with McCain.

In 2000, McCain was, as Wallace points out, an "anticandidate" whose campaign seemed like an ironic riff on politics. Used to stuffy, humorless politicians, reporters were thrilled to hang out with a guy who campaigned with an edge of self-mockery. A hotshot Navy pilot, no less. "He's witty, and smart, and he'll make fun of himself and his wife and staff and other pols and the Trail, and he'll tease the press and give them shit in a way they don't ever mind because it's the sort of shit that makes you feel that here's this very cool, important guy who's noticing you and liking you enough to give you shit," Wallace wrote....
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