Cultural and political image of John McCain
John McCain's personal character has dominated the image and perception of him. His family's military heritage, his rebellious nature as a youth, his endurance over his treatment as a prisoner of war, his resulting physical limitations, his political persona, his well-known temper, his admitted propensity for controversial or ill-advised remarks, and his devotion to maintaining his large blended family have all defined his place in the American political world more than any ideological or partisan framing (although the latter became more prominent beginning in 2008).
This article is part of a series about the life of
Early life and military career
House and Senate career until 2000
2000 Presidential primaries campaign
Senate career, 2001–present
2008 McCain-Palin campaign
Cultural and political image
Military culture and political character
McCain's experiences as a POW have formed the basis for some of his political image. University of Richmond political scientist John Karaagac states that, "The military holds a special place in American society and in American democracy. In both war and peace, the military becomes the archetype of democratic values and aspirations.... The competing tension of intense institutional loyalty on one hand and guardian of the republic on the other [leads to a situation where] the military view of politics is bound to be ambivalent." Karaagac then sees McCain as a focal point of this tension and ambivalence. In part, this is due to McCain's family history: public service is idealized in military tradition, whereas politics is deprecated, and this was the tradition in McCain's family as well. Yet McCain's father also served as a Congressional liaison for a while, and was able to be politically effective without seeming overtly so; part of McCain's youth was spent seeing a steady stream of powerful politicians entertained at his family's house. When McCain first began his Senate liaison work, he held congressional leaders in poor regard, due to their actions during and after the Vietnam War. But once he began working with them closely, he found a number of them he admired: "They were statesmen, and although some of them had never served in uniform, I came to appreciate that most were patriots of the first order."
American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky sees McCain's POW experience as being uniquely suited for his country's perceptions of the Vietnam War: "It was by suffering in a cell, serving as a kind of metaphor for American suffering in a war most Americans gave up on early in his confinement, but at the same time holding fast to principle under the most unimaginable circumstances, thereby redeeming some notion of American honor in a dishonorable situation, that McCain became an American hero." This assessment is echoed by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who says that "McCain's is not the heroism of conquest or even rescue, but of endurance, and, even more important, endurance for principle. ... [his] suffering has become in the public imagination a kind of expiation for the war itself. It explains why even people so ideologically distant from him find his experience so moving and his appeal so powerful." The New Republic writer David Grann also concurs in this assessment of McCain's real heroism, but emphasizes that during the 1990s the U.S. national media often overlooked not only political and ideological beliefs of McCain's contrary to theirs, but biographical blemishes as well, in a revival of an old American tradition of hero-building that goes back to Parson Weems. Journalist Andrew Ferguson describes instances where journalists who grew up in the Vietnam era have felt guilt for not having served themselves, and once in contact with McCain have viewed and written favorably about him as a result; the same pattern has been observed by Tomasky and by author David Brock. Longtime Washington journalist Al Hunt states that "The hero is indispensable to the McCain persona" and sees the courage McCain showed as a prisoner of war directly linked to the courage required to take on "the link between money and politics [that] is pervasive throughout American history." Writer Michael Lewis views McCain's political "nerve [as] far more interesting than bravery in combat. It was the nerve of a man engaged in an experiment of behaving like a human being when everyone around him was playing this strange, artificial game."
After many years of observing McCain, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that "there is nobody in politics remotely like him," making reference to his energy and dynamism, his rebelliousness and desire to battle powerful political forces, his willingness to endlessly and truthfully talk with reporters, and his being "driven by an ancient sense of honor." Brooks does not see McCain without political fault, but explains that, "There have been occasions when McCain compromised his principles for political gain, but he was so bad at it that it always backfired." Vanity Fair national editor Todd Purdum sees McCain's efforts in the years leading up to the 2008 election as "trying to make the maverick, freethinking impulses that first made him into a political star somehow compatible with the suck-it-up adherence to the orthodoxies required of a Republican presidential front-runner" and compares it to squaring the circle: "McCain needs to square that circle, and the hell of it is, he just can't." The New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait does not think McCain has done this either, but echoes Brooks by saying, "[McCain's] demagoguery comes with an awkward forced smile, which doesn't make it more forgivable but does make it less irritating." Karaagac, though, sees that McCain "as Senator, ... understands how to play the game of politics by knowing when to appear above the fracas." McCain has practiced the modern American ritual of falling short of ideals, confessing, and moving on; University of Southern California Unruh Institute of Politics Director Dan Schnur, a former McCain campaign spokesperson, says McCain "is the best apologizer in politics".
The past McCain sees two perceptions of himself: "I have my reputation ... I'm an independent-minded, well-intentioned public servant to some. And to others, I'm a self-styled, self-righteous, maverick pain in the ass." And while McCain recognizes that deference, finesse, patience, and agility are qualities that are often associated with successful politicians, "God has given me heart enough for my ambitions, but too little forbearance to pursue them by routes other than a straight line." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham observes that "There is a kind of egotism in McCain—he loves attention, always has, and takes glee in confounding the expectations of the institutions of which he is a part." City University of New York political science professor Stanley A. Renshon found that trait theory does not adequately explain McCain's behavior as a political figure, and that McCain's interior psychology includes a variety of aspects that defy simple analysis in terms of how he might perform in higher leadership roles.
McCain is a lifelong gambler, from his early military days of playing poker, craps, and roulette and running a friendly Bachelor Officer Quarters gambling den while off-duty in Florida and Texas, to traveling periodically to Las Vegas for weekend-long betting marathons while senator. McCain has a history, beginning with his military career, of appealing to lucky charms and superstitions to gain fortune. While serving in Vietnam, he demanded that his parachute rigger clean his visor before each flight. On his 2000 presidential campaign, he carried a lucky compass, feather, shoes, pen, penny and, at times, a rock. An incident when McCain misplaced his feather caused a brief panic in the campaign. The night before the 2008 New Hampshire primary he slept on the same side of the bed in the same hotel room he had stayed in before his win there in 2000, and after winning carried some of his talismans forward into the following Michigan primary while adding others. His superstitions are extended to others; to those afraid of flying or experiencing a bumpy flight, he says, "You don't need to worry. I've crashed four fighter jets, and I'm not going to die in a plane crash. You're safe with me."
McCain's war wounds leave him incapable of raising his arms above his head; he is unable to attend to his own hair and he sometimes requires assistance in dressing, tasks performed by nearby aides. His former communications director has said, "You comb someone's hair once, and you never forget it." McCain has been treated for recurrent skin cancer, including melanoma, in 1993, 2000, and 2002; one of the resulting operations left a noticeable mark on the left side of his face. These medical conditions, combined with his advancing years, led him to repeatedly use a self-deprecating remark during his 2008 presidential campaigning: "I am older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein."
Political character and public response
McCain's own emphasis on personal character in his appeal to voters was revealed in a University of Missouri study of political discourse in the 2000 Republican primary campaign, which showed McCain using fewer policy, and more character, utterances than any other candidate. Another study of the campaign, by University of North Florida communications professor John Parmelee, performed a framing theory analysis of a McCain campaign videocassette sent to voters; it found the video's narrative sought to connect values from McCain's personal life and war record to his political courage and then his political platform. Unlike rival George W. Bush's campaign videocassette, McCain's did not shy away from negative aspects of his personal history, but instead sought to frame his divorce as a chapter in his character-building POW experience. McCain's appeal has usually not been based on party identification: University of California, San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson's 2006 study of partisan polarization found that in a state-by-state survey of job approval ratings of the state's senators, McCain had the seventh-smallest partisan difference of any senator, with a 2.6 percentage point difference in approval between Arizona's Republicans and Democrats. Likewise, an April 2008 Gallup poll found that the public perception of him as a war hero was not strongly weighted by party identification (unlike the case in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry). While McCain's Gallup poll favorability ratings were beaten down during the course of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, they rebounded to previous levels within days of his defeat.
Nor has conventional ideology defined him: Arizona Republic columnist and RealClearPolitics contributor Robert Robb, using a formulation devised by William F. Buckley, Jr., describes McCain as "conservative" but not "a conservative", meaning that while McCain usually tends towards conservative positions, he is not "anchored by the philosophical tenets of modern American conservatism." New Yorker writer George Packer says of McCain, "He doesn’t present himself as a conservative leader; he is simply a leader." Reason and Los Angeles Times writer Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, sees political pundits as projecting their own ideological fantasies upon McCain, with the result that McCain's "maverick" persona shields his actual goals for the nation and national culture. McCain has called himself "a Teddy Roosevelt conservative", and indeed Welch sees Theodore Roosevelt as the main governmental role model for McCain, and writes that McCain believes in effectively statist solutions that will facilitate the notion "that Americans 'were meant to transform history' and that sublimating the individual in the service of that 'common national cause' is the wellspring of honor and purpose."
An Arizona Republic analysis of Senate votes from 1999 to 2008 found that McCain broke with his party in about a quarter of the close votes where his stance could make a difference, but almost never in the years he was running for president. However, McCain's Senate stances on signature issues of campaign finance reform in 1999 and comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, while not resulting in very close Senate votes, significantly damaged his presidential prospects in both years.
"What happened to John McCain?"
By the time of the 2008 general election season, the nature of some of the McCain campaign's tactics had tipped the balance of past respect for some observers. Washington Post columnist and past McCain admirer Richard Cohen said that "the John McCain of old is unrecognizable. He has become the sort of politician he once despised." Writer Michael Kinsley noted falsehoods stated by the McCain campaign and ponders whether it will be "necessary to wait for one of McCain’s conveniently delayed conversions to righteousness."
This trend continued during the Obama administration and during McCain's 2010 senate re-election campaign. As McCain shed his past contraorthodox positions and explicitly repudiated the very 'maverick' label itself, The Politico concluded that "by seeming to do anything to win re-election McCain has torched one of the most famous brands in modern American politics," and Fox News echoed the same sentiment by writing that "McCain abandoned his maverick label and cast aside one of the most powerful brands in American politics as he fought to reassure conservatives they could trust him."
The change caused writers to reassess and question their past conclusions about McCain. David Margolick, writing for Newsweek magazine, wondered: "His dramatic shifts raise several questions: How much of his maverick persona over the years has been real and how much simply tactical? Is he in the midst of some struggle for his soul, or is this evolution simply the latest example, dating back to his days at the Hanoi Hilton, of McCain doing whatever it takes to survive? Is the anger people sense in him anger at Obama, or the American electorate, or fate, or himself?" James Fallows of The Atlantic saw McCain as going against the usual trend of public figures becoming more broad-minded as they get older and concluded, "John McCain seems intentionally to be shrinking his audience, his base, and his standing in history. It's unnecessary, and it is sad." Writer Niall O'Dowd wrote that McCain had been "a remarkable man, true to his own vision of where true north was on his compass," but then, "something happened ... In his place is this crotchety naysayer who has lost all track of his better self and his better angels." Todd Purdum, whose long, largely favorable treatment of McCain in an early 2007 issue of Vanity Fair had been titled "Prisoner of Conscience", wrote a far more bitter piece for the same publication in late 2010 entitled "The Man Who Never Was".
Writers began to seek explanations for what had happened to the John McCain they thought they knew. Explanations varied: political survival, political expediency, the departure of alter-ego Mark Salter, personal antipathy towards Obama, resentment at Obama's election. New York Times columnist Gail Collins snarked simply: "But that was the old John McCain, before he was kidnapped by space aliens and reprogrammed."
Several writers sought to frame McCain's career as actually consistent, when viewed through different prisms. Matt Welch acknowledged that McCain had made a series of "crude reversals" in his political positions, but also extrapolated upon his previous analysis of McCain and wrote that some of the shifts were actually not, and could be explained by virtue of his generational military heritage and that "McCain's core, almost genetic, principle in governance and life is that the United States should remain the unchallenged military superpower keeping the world safe for democracy and commerce." Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein wrote that McCain's career is better explained by looking at electoral opportunities and his personal resentments at the time than by political or policy positions. Purdum amplified on both these themes and wrote that McCain's political self was connected to his warrior past: "McCain has always lived for the fight, and he has defined himself most clearly in opposition to an enemy, whether that enemy was the rule-bound leadership of the United States Naval Academy, his North Vietnamese captors, the hometown Arizona press corps that never much liked him, his Republican congressional colleagues, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama, or J. D. Hayworth. He has always been more of an existential politician than a consequential one, in the sense that his influence has derived not from steady, unswerving pursuit of philosophical goals or legislative achievements but from the series of unpredictable–and sometimes spectacular–fights he has chosen to pick."
Journalist Adam Clymer notes of McCain that, "There is no question that he sometimes loses potential allies by his penchant for telling off other senators." Todd Purdum remarks upon a "temperament that routinely put[s] him atop insiders' lists of the most difficult senators on Capitol Hill." A 2006 Washingtonian survey of Capitol Hill staff ranked McCain as having the second "Hottest Temper" in the Senate. Former Senator Rick Santorum says that, "John was very rough in the sandbox. Everybody has a McCain story. If you work in the Senate for a while, you have a McCain story. ... He hasn't built up a lot of goodwill." Writer Elizabeth Drew quoted a senator who admired McCain as saying, "Dealing with John McCain is kind of like dancing with a cactus."
In 1989, McCain screamed at Senator Richard Shelby an inch from his face, during a heated cabinet nomination battle for McCain's friend John Tower. In 1992, McCain and Senator Chuck Grassley got into a heated argument, with shoving and profanities, over a POW/MIA committee issue and did not speak to each other for two years, before reconciling. At a meeting in 2007 on immigration legislation, fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn objected to McCain: "Wait a second here. I've been sitting in here for all of these negotiations and you just parachute in here on the last day. You're out of line," to which McCain replied, "Fuck you! I know more about this than anyone else in the room."
McCain has stated: "It is apparent that I'm not the most popular member of the Senate." The Almanac of American Politics comments that "[McCain's] opposition to what he considers pork barrel spending ... provides him plenty of material for his self-deprecating jokes about how unpopular he is with many colleagues." Regarding his temper, or what cultural writer Julia Keller characterizes as passionate conviction, McCain acknowledges it, while also saying that the stories have been exaggerated. Renshon notes that having a temper is not unusual for U.S. leaders, with George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton among those sharing the trait. McCain has indeed employed both profanity and shouting on occasion. Adam Clymer sees McCain's nature as possibly misfit for the Senate: "McCain is an impatient man — perhaps because he lost five years of his life as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam — in an institution that worships delay and rewards endurance." George "Bud" Day, McCain's former POW cellmate and subsequent lifelong friend, found McCain's temperament in the Senate amusingly consistent with his past practice of going around the POW camp, taunting and yelling obscenities at the North Vietnamese guards. Phillip Butler, who knew McCain at the Naval Academy and was also a POW with him, said, "John has an infamous reputation for being a hot head." McCain's sometimes explosive temper was an integral part of his somewhat unorthodox, but effective and admired, leadership style when he was commanding officer of the VA-174 naval air squadron in the mid-1970s.
Such incidents have become less frequent over the years: senators supporting his 2008 presidential campaign said that McCain had calmed down during the 2000s, and reporters have noted almost no flare-ups during the 2008 presidential campaign. Senator Susan Collins, who endorsed McCain in the 2008 primaries on the basis of his character and not his political positions, said, "People tend to feel very strongly about John both ways." Senator Thad Cochran, who has known McCain and the McCain family for decades and has battled McCain over earmarks, represents one view: "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me." Ultimately Cochran decided to support McCain for president, after it was clear he would win the nomination. Senator Joseph Lieberman, an enthusiastic cross-party 2008 McCain backer, represents the other view with this observation: "[McCain's] is not the kind of anger that is a loss of control. He is a very controlled person." Following the election, there have been occasional in-Senate flare-ups, such as during the December 2010 debate over repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
McCain's relations with his own Senate staff have reflected less tension: doors to his office are usually kept open and staffers call him by his first name. Moreover, staffers stay with his office for an unusually long time, over eight years on average at one point. And McCain's senior campaign staff have shown a passionate loyalty towards him, a loyalty that continues even from people who have been forced to leave his campaign after intra-staff squabbles. McCain has had many run-ins and heated confrontations with people in Arizona political circles, but a number of them have later become campaign contributors to him.
The characteristics that led to McCain gaining hundreds of demerits at the Naval Academy have never fully left him; by his own admission, he has an "irremediable" personality trait of being "a wiseass," and as he added: "Occasionally my sense of humor is ill-considered or ill-timed, and that can be a problem." Others have concurred: A 2007 Associated Press story was titled "McCain's WMD Is a Mouth That Won't Quit", while in 2008, The Politico described McCain's humor as "rooted in a time before there was political correctness" and a characteristic that is viewed either as a mark of authenticity or as out of touch with contemporary mores. Over the years this trait has led to a series of controversial remarks, with targets both domestic and foreign.
In 1986, Representative McCain was reported to have joked about a woman enjoying being raped by a gorilla, when speaking at a conference of the National League of Cities and Towns in Washington, D.C. Other reports put the alleged ape joke in 1984 rather than 1986. McCain said in the 1980s that he did not recall telling that joke.
In his 1986 senate campaign, at a college appearance he referred to Arizona's Leisure World retirement community as "Seizure World", remarking that in the previous election, "97 percent of the people who live there came out to vote. I think the other 3 percent were in intensive care." While the young audience laughed, his Democratic opponent soon jumped on the remark; McCain would later concede that it was a joke whose offense he made worse when he did not quickly apologize for it.
In 1998, McCain made a joke during a speech at a Republican fundraiser about President Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, saying: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." The joke was thought so offensive that many newspapers declined to print it verbatim; McCain's biographer Robert Timberg would characterize it as "an unspeakable thing to say, unworthy of him." McCain subsequently said: "This is the bad boy. It was stupid and cruel and insensitive. I've apologized. I can't take it back." His letter of apology to President Clinton was described as "abject, contrite, and profuse." In response, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said: "To make a further issue of the matter would lend further exposure to an offensive joke. In light of the senator's apology, they [the first family] decided to drop the matter."
In the 2000 Presidential race, McCain stated that "I hate the gooks," and that "I will hate them as long as I live." Until the year 2000, McCain used the ethnic slur "gook" in reference to the individuals who had tortured him in Vietnam, and reaction among Vietnamese Americans to McCain's use of this term was mixed, but they were generally supportive of McCain's candidacy, for example as shown in exit polls in the primary in California. During his presidential campaign that year, he at first refused to apologize for his continued use of the term, stating that he reserved its reference only to his captors; then after continued criticism from some in the Asian American community, McCain vowed to no longer use the term, saying, "I will continue to condemn those who unfairly mistreated us. But out of respect to a great number of people for whom I hold in very high regard, I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort."
At a VFW Hall in South Carolina in 2007, a veteran asked when the U.S. would "send an air mail message to Iran." McCain jokingly responded by singing "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran," to the tune of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" (from the 1980 "Bomb Iran" song parody by Vince Vance & The Valiants), and then seriously explained his concerns about Iran while stopping short of a bombing endorsement. When later asked about the singing, McCain stated, "My response is: lighten up and get a life." Asked whether it was insensitive, McCain retorted, "Insensitive to what? The Iranians?"
As a guest on the Daily Show a few days later in 2007, and following a trip to Baghdad, host and longtime friend Jon Stewart asked McCain, "What do you want to start with, the bomb Iran song or the walk through the market in Baghdad?" McCain responded by saying, "I think maybe shopping in Baghdad ... I had something picked out for you, too – a little IED to put on your desk." When anti-Iraq-war Democrats objected to the remark, McCain advised that they too, "Lighten up and get a life."
Traditions and family
McCain has emphasized the role that the family tradition of service to one's country, as exemplified by his father and grandfather, has played in his life; it was the predominant theme of his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers. Both his forebears had difficulty coping with the end of war; his grandfather felt listless and died several days after the formal conclusion of World War II, while his father felt despair over his reluctant retirement from the United States Navy and fell into prolonged poor health afterwards. McCain felt that his father's "long years of binge drinking" had caught up with him, despite his mostly successful subsequent recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. McCain had been troubled by the sporadic manifestations of his father's alcoholism while growing up, and Matt Welch sees McCain's experience of living with that, as well as witnessing his wife Cindy's three-year addiction to painkillers in the early 1990s, as causing his speech and writings to be populated with the language and emotions of twelve-step programs. In particular, Welch sees McCain as "disarmingly talented at admitting his narcissistic flaws" and constantly seeking to invest in a cause greater than self-interest.
McCain is known for his responses to attacks upon his family. An opponent of his in the 1982 Republican House primary contacted his first wife Carol, seeking negative material on McCain. She refused to discuss her marriage, and then next time McCain met the opponent, he said: "I understand you called my ex-wife. I want you to know that, campaign aside, politics aside, you ever do anything like that again, anything against a person in my family, I will personally beat the shit out of you." The smear campaign against his adopted Bangladeshi daughter during the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary so bothered him that, by some accounts, he considered leaving the Republican Party.
The traditions McCain was brought up under have extended to his own family. His son John Sidney IV ("Jack") enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 2009, after which he went to Naval Air Station Pensacola for training as a naval aviator, just as his father had, followed by helicopter pilot training at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, where he graduated from in January 2011. He was subsequently assigned to the HSC-25 "Island Knights" squadron in Guam, flying the MH-60S Knighthawk. His son James ("Jimmy") enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006, began recruit training later that year, and by early 2008 was a Lance Corporal who had served a tour of duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He subsequently served a second tour in Iraq as well, then left to attend college, with possible plans to return to the Marines. His daughter Meghan graduated from Columbia University, worked and blogged on his presidential campaign, and subsequently became a blogging, twittering, and book publishing fixture on the Republican Party scene with some of the same maverick tendencies as her father. His daughter Bridget is a student at Arizona State University. From his first marriage, his son Doug graduated from the University of Virginia, became a Navy A-6E Intruder carrier pilot, then a commercial pilot for American Airlines; his son Andrew is vice president and CFO at Hensley & Co. and chair of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce; and his daughter Sidney is a recording industry executive living in Toronto who has worked for Capitol Records and V2 Records.
Altogether he has seven children, born across four decades, including three with Carol – all of whom are reported to be on good terms with him, his wife, and each other – and, as of 2007, four grandchildren. Cindy McCain suffered a stroke in 2004 due to high blood pressure, but made a mostly full recovery. They reside in Phoenix, and she remains the chair of the large Anheuser-Busch beer and liquor distributor Hensley & Co., founded by her father. By September 2007, McCain's denominational migration was complete, and he was identifying himself as a Baptist. More broadly, he identifies himself as a Christian rather than an evangelical Christian.
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- ^ The Humor Deficit
- ^ No joking matter for McCain
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John McCain Life Books authored Political activitiesHouse and Senate career, until 2000 · The Keating Five Scandal · International Republican Institute · Presidential campaign, 2000 · Senate career, 2001-present · Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act · Climate Stewardship Acts · McCain Detainee Amendment · 2008 opposition to limiting interrogation techniques · List of bills sponsored · Political positions · Presidential campaign, 2008 · Presidential campaign endorsements, 2008 Elections Family
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