Some of Us Understood McCain.

Today's big political profile is Todd Purdum's "The Man Who Never Was," in Vanity Fair, in which the intrepid reporter smacks his forehead in astonishment! John McCain, it turns out, might never have been much of a "maverick" after all, but simply a run-of-the-mill Washington operator:

What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point. It’s quite possible that nothing at all has changed about John McCain, a ruthless and self-centered survivor...It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

"The rest of us," Todd? Not quite all of "us." Here's what I wrote about McCain in April 2008:

There is no paradox, contradiction, or hypocrisy in McCain. He's a straight-forward Washington creature, one who figured out some new ways to exercise power on behalf of the usual interests.

In 2006, I wrote,

The unique role McCain has created self-evidently serves his own political purposes, supporting the impression that he is a figure who transcends party and ideology, an image that he presumably hopes is implanted strongly enough in the public mind that it will survive all the acts of obeisance demanded by the gatekeepers of his party's nomination.

None of this should have been hard to see. McCain's maneuvers were fairly transparent. It's really an interesting story about the press: How did the idea that there was a "real" McCain who would someday return live on for six long years? What was so useful about that myth? How many excuses were made for him? "Oh, it's so sad that McCain has to do all these things to win the Republican nomination." "Oh, poor McCain, if it weren't for the primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, he'd be working with Obama on climate-change legislation."

Purdum's title is exactly right: That McCain "never was." The really interesting story is how a totally imagined figure could play such a large role in American politics for more than a decade.

-- Mark Schmitt

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