Is McCain Now “The Sort of Politician He Once Despised”?

                                                                                            AP Photo by Stephan Savola

By James M. Wall

When Richard Cohen writes a column under the heading, “The Ugly New McCain”, he makes a dramatic shift away from his previous attitude toward John McCain, a man he has long admired for his “service to a cause greater than oneself”. Cohen is the highly respected Washington Post columnist who freely admits “I am one of the journalists accused over the years of being in the tank for McCain. Guilty. Those doing the accusing usually attributed my feelings to McCain being accessible.” 

It was not McCain’s accessibility that made him so attractive to Cohen. Rather, as Cohen wrote, it was the effect McCain had on his audiences, particularly young people. “He expressed his message in words, but he packaged it in the McCain story — that man, beaten to a pulp, who chose honor over freedom. This had nothing to do with access. It had to do with integrity”.

McCain has soiled all that. His opportunistic and irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin as his political heir — the person in whose hands he would leave the country — is a form of personal treason, a betrayal of all he once stood for. Palin, no matter what her other attributes, is shockingly unprepared to become president. McCain knows that. He means to win, which is all right; he means to win at all costs, which is not. . . . .

Recalling an earlier encounter with the McCain he once admired, Cohen recalls what he describes as an “extraordinary” moment following the 2000 South Carolina primary. McCain confessed he had lied when he supported the flying of the Confederate flag. McCain admitted he actually abhorred the current use of  a symbol so offensive to African Americans. He admitted he broke his promise to always tell the truth.

Cohen writes: “Now he has broken that promise so completely that the John McCain of old is unrecognizable. He has become the sort of politician he once despised.”

The turning point for Cohen, which he terms “the precise moment of McCain’s abasement”, came when McCain walked onto the set of the daytime television show, The View, no doubt expecting a pleasant chat with a panel of women, including the program’s creator, Barbara Walters.

One of the show’s co-hosts, Joy Behar, criticized two ads the McCain campaign was running in targeted states.  One ad “deliberately mischaracterized” Obama’s reference to putting lipstick on a pig, a line many politicians, including John McCain, have used to describe policies of their political opponents.  The other ad “asserted that Obama supported teaching sex education to kindergarteners”.  Cohen describes what happened next:

“We know that those two ads are untrue,” Behar said. “They are lies.”

Freeze. Close in on McCain. This was the moment. He has largely been avoiding the press. The Straight Talk Express is now just a brand, an ad slogan like “Home Cooking” or “We Will Not Be Undersold.” Until then, it was possible for McCain to say that he had not really known about the ads, that the formulation “I approve this message” was just boilerplate. But he didn’t.

“Actually, they are not lies,” he said.

Actually, they are.

McCain has turned ugly. His dishonesty would be unacceptable in any politician, but McCain has always set his own bar higher than most. He has contempt for most of his colleagues for that very reason: They lie. He tells the truth. He internalizes the code of the McCains — his grandfather, his father: both admirals of the shining sea. He serves his country differently, that’s all — but just as honorably. No more, though.

While McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin was to Cohen,  “a form of personal treason,” many members of the conservative “elite” media, and most Republicans, moderate and conservative, rushed to embrace Sarah Palin, the candidate Richard Cohen describes as “shockingly unprepared to become president”/

George Will and Bill Kristol, two columnists who pride themselves on their intellectual acumen, provide McCain with respectable cover for his choce of Palin. Kristol, the neo-conservative columnist added to the New York Times’ oped stable for “balance”, believes that McCain’s choice of Palin fits nicely, and perhaps successfully, into the current American political climate: 

McCain didn’t just pick a politician who could appeal to Wal-Mart Moms. He picked a Wal-Mart Mom. Indeed, he picked someone who, in 1999, as Wasilla mayor, presided over a wedding of two Wal-Mart associates at the local Wal-Mart. “It was so sweet,” said Palin, according to The Anchorage Daily News. “It was so Wasilla.”  A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, No problem. And some — perhaps a decisive number — will say, It’s about time.

It is also “about time” for George Will, the dean of the political right media, who appeared on ABC’s This Week program and defended Palin’s performance during her encounter with ABC’s Charles Gibson. Will, who is usually the first to pounce at the first sign of flawed knowledge, criticized the professorial manner Gibson used in asking Sarah Palin if she supported “the Bush doctrine”. Palin had hedged her answer, clearly unaware of the Bush Doctrine. 

Gibson finally described the doctrine to her.  Will apologized for her fumbling responses by saying he could not have answered that question himself.  A remarkable comment for the well-read Will, which suggests that either he has suffered a severe loss of memory or else, like McCain, he is willing to evade the truth to defend Palin.

Will knows better. He may have meant his faux ignorance to be a funny bit of self-denigration, but Will does not do funny very well. He has written supportive columns on the doctrine, and he most certainly has read the discussion of the evolving versions of the Bush doctrine from 1.0 to 5.0 in Jaob Weinberg’s book, The Bush Tragedy (Random House © 2008) excerpts of which appeared in Newsweek.  Weinberg writes:

. . . it was [Vice President Dick] Cheney who first started calling it the “Bush Doctrine” in public. In a November 2001 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cheney offered this definition: “We will hold those who harbor terrorists, those who provide sanctuary to terrorists, responsible for their acts.”

When “Professor” Gibson asked Palin about the Bush doctrine, he was not asking a “gotcha” question. He was merely repeating a question he had asked presidential candidates in their debates earlier in 2008. Perhaps Charlie, as Governor Palin likes to call him, had also read the Weinberg book, which had just been published. McCain, by the way, told Gibson he agreed with the doctrine;

Palin will face Joe Biden in a nationally televised vice-;presidential debate in St. Louis, October 8.  Palin will have to have her Cliff Note cheat sheets updated to include things like the Bush doctrine in all five of its versions.  She is a smart politician and no doubt a quick learner. She will need to be. The questions in St. Louis will come from  Gwen Ifill, the Moderator and Managing Editor of the PBS program, Washington Week,





About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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