In the last couple of years, every time something John McCain says makes "news," my immediate reaction—sometimes on Twitter, sometimes just in my head—is, "Remind me again why anybody should give a crap what John McCain thinks about anything?" I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to this question. And here comes star reporter Mark Leibovich, author of the well-received This Town, with a 6,634-word cover profile of McCain for next week's New York Times Magazine. Do we need another one of these? I would have answered "no" before reading, but after, I'm even more sure.
If you're doing this kind of profile, the first thing you have to do is answer, "Why?" Why do we care what McCain is up to? Did you learn anything important or interesting by following him around for a few days? Leibovich gives a shot to answering this question, and fails completely. He acknowledges all the clichés that have been attached to McCain over the years (maverick!), but then, without acknowledging it, indulges in the cliché that undergirds all the others: that whatever is happening now, John McCain is at the center of it:
McCain has another favorite Teddy Roosevelt phrase, "the crowded hour," which I have heard him invoke several times over the years. It comes from a poem by the English writer Thomas Mordaunt, and T. R. used it to famously describe his charge on San Juan Hill. In McCain's philosophy, "the crowded hour" refers to a moment of character testing. "The 'crowded hour' is as appropriate for me right now as any in a long time," McCain told me as we walked through the Capitol. In some respects, this is just a function of public figures' tendency to overdramatize the current moment and their role in it. But five years after losing to Barack Obama, after enduring the recriminations between his splintered campaign staff and rogue running mate, Sarah Palin, and after returning to the Senate and falling into a prolonged funk, McCain finds himself in the midst of another crowded hour, maybe his last as an elected leader.
And just how is John McCain in this 'crowded hour,' shaping critical events? How is his character being tested? Well let's see. In the next paragraph, Leibovich tells us that McCain thinks Barack Obama is a foreign policy disaster. An opinion shared by most Republicans (Obama hasn't even started any new wars, for pete's sake!), but holding that opinion doesn't constitute doing anything. Next, Leibovich tells us, "McCain also finds himself in the thick of the latest 'fight for the soul of the G.O.P.' against the Tea Party right." "In the thick" of it, is he? And what does that mean? Will McCain have some large influence over that fight for the party's soul? Of course not. Every once in a while he'll give a surly comment, like when he referred to Tea Partiers as "wacko birds," but he won't be organizing any faction, or leading anybody, or doing anything at all that will determine the outcome of that fight. Nevertheless, Leibovich assures us, McCain does go on TV a lot. You might argue that makes him relevant ("I think the biggest fear John has is not being relevant," says his little buddy Lindsey Graham), but spending a lot of time chatting with Wolf Blitzer is not the same thing as having an impact on developing events.
So let's ask: What are the standards we could use to judge whether a senator is an important figure, at least more important than most of his or her 99 colleagues? After all, nobody's writing Times Magazine cover profiles of Mike Johanns or John Hoeven. How is it that they're less important than John McCain? An important senator might be influencing critical legislation. No dice there: McCain never much cared about lawmaking (in his three decades in Congress, he authored exactly one important law, which was later eviscerated by the Supreme Court). He might later become a presidential candidate, which is why we pay attention to people like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, even if they're ridiculous. No dice there either; McCain won't be running for the White House again. He might lead some important constituency, or exercise great influence over his colleagues. Nothing there either; McCain represents basically no one, and he has never been popular with other senators. He might be championing an issue that will grow in import in the near future. Nothing there either. He might have some truly profound ideas that will shape policy in years to come. Can you name an important idea John McCain is advocating for?
So all that's left is that John McCain is important because he gets invited on Meet the Press a lot. If you're looking for something beyond that, you won't find it in this article.
Leibovich is a good reporter, which is why this piece is so puzzling. Not just in that he makes some of the same blunders so many other reporters profiling McCain have made, like credulously quoting McCain saying he never talks about his experience in Vietnam—not only completely false (he talks about it all the time*), but a transparent way of making sure that the reporter includes in his story both a tribute to McCain's modesty and a lengthy description of his POW ordeal. But more critically, what boggles the mind is that Leibovich (not to mention his editors) thought there was something to be learned with yet another 6,600-word profile of John McCain that reads exactly like every other profile of McCain you've ever read, from the Vietnam tribute to the description of his full schedule to the admiring quotes from Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman to the awe at his mavericky maverickness. I'll save you the trouble: there isn't.
* I just want to add that it isn't just Leibovich who says this, just like so many other reporters who have written about McCain. In another portion of the article, Liebovich discusses a luncheon Harry Reid organized to honor the anniversary of McCain's captivity:
"John told a lot of little poignant stories," Susan Collins of Maine told me. "When John was tied up in such a painful position, he talked about the one guard who would loosen the bonds. He told the story of being out in the yard on Easter, and how one of the guards drew a little cross in the sand, just to acknowledge the holiday, and then rubbed it out so no one would get in trouble." Collins has spent more than a hundred hours on airplane trips with McCain, she says, and has never heard him tell these stories.
Really? Then Collins ought to pay more attention to the news, because I've seen McCain tell that story a dozen times. His 2008 campaign even made an ad telling the story. For the record, as I've said many times, McCain has every right to talk about Vietnam as much as he wants and get whatever political mileage he can out of it. But when he and other people claim he's terribly reticent about ever bringing it up, they just aren't telling the truth.