On a spring day six years ago, John McCain and some other members of Congress took a stroll through a Baghdad market, showing Americans how stable and secure life in Iraq had become. Noting that he left his helmet (though not his flak jacket) back in the Humvee, McCain waxed rhapsodic to reporters about how safe he felt. His colleague, then-representative Mike Pence, said it reminded him of a "normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime." They didn't mention that they were accompanied by 100 troops, three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships, just in case, one supposes, a rambunctious but good-hearted Iraqi street urchin tried to pick their pockets.
John McCain is no longer a substantively important figure in American politics. As a member of the minority party in the Senate, he chairs no committees. He is not a leader among his peers. Since losing in his second run for president, he continued his decades-long record of not bothering to engage in the legislating part of being a legislator (over a three-decade-long career, McCain has exactly one significant piece of legislation to his name, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court). Yet he continues to be a politically important figure, appearing more often on the Sunday shows than anyone else and having his ideas and his opinions regularly reported on.
Which is why I simply must speak up now that the biggest myth about John McCain is cropping up again. It's the idea that, noble and modest as he is, McCain has always been terribly reluctant to discuss the fact that he was a POW in Vietnam.
Not long ago, I stopped watching the network Sunday shows. After all, who needs to spend an hour or two of valuable weekend time listening to elected officials and party hacks regurgitating the same tired talking points you've been hearing all week? But there's no denying that Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and to a lesser extent Fox News Sunday are enormously influential. They confer status on the people who appear, they define the limits of official debate, and they help set the agenda for the rest of the media. So while they are often tiresome to sit through, they can't be completely ignored. That's why I couldn't stay silent after seeing this celebratory tweet from Betsy Fischer, the longtime executive producer of Meet the Press:
If you watch the Sunday shows, the only thing you'll be surprised about is that McCain hadn't passed Dole (or anyone else) already.
Around this time last year, the Senate was setting in to tackle various pieces legislation it put off over the course of the year and capitalize on the remaining time before the House majority switched parties in January. Repealing "don't ask, don't tell"—the '90s-era provision that allowed LGBT soldiers to serve in the military so long as they did not reveal their sexual identity—was near the top of the list for Democrats. Rather than immediately repealing the measure after the 2008 election on the grounds that the rule clearly violated civil liberties, Democrats did their best to appease the regulation's proponents and commissioned an impact study, which concluded that there would be no negative impact on military readiness or morale if the law were overturned.
Not too long ago, John McCain was one of the most admired people in Washington. He was held in esteem by both Republicans and Democrats. His legion of admirers in the press painted a picture of a heroic figure working to clean up the political system, fighting against overwhelming odds, pushed on by courage and principle. But there was always another side to McCain. On a personal level, he was actually an enormous jerk, who could be petty, rude, and even cruel to those who got in his way (not for nothing was he once known as "Senator Hothead"). He didn't really care much about policy. He was always more concerned with personal ambition and preening for the cameras than accomplishing anything.
I often decry the cynicism of the press corps -- heck, I did it in my last post -- but allow me to make the case for some more cynicism in one particular case. Today, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, long a big fan of Sen. John McCain, washes his hands of the former presidential candidate, while still managing to fit in his column nearly all the tropes that made coverage of McCain so maddening for so many years. There's the gratuitous mention of McCain's POW past, lest we forget for a moment that what McCain endured 40 years ago makes him more honorable than the rest of us.
There's a shared conceit among the business class and the wealthy who wish to enter politics that they bring some sort of independent, means-tested credibility to the field based on the fact that they've been successful in the private sector. Take "fed up" billionaire Jeff Greene, who is jumping into the Florida Senate race because he wants to give voters a choice between "three career politicians" and "an outsider who is willing to shake things up in Washington." Stirring words, sir. He also asks of the aforementioned politicians, "They have had their chance.
A key part of the conservative argument for keeping the ban on gay Americans serving in the military is that military leaders supposedly tell us that removing the ban will cause untold chaos. The problem comes when those military leaders begin to change their minds, as John McCain is finding out. His previous position was that "the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it." Oh, well. Now that the military leadership has done just that, McCain decided that he has to support the ban because Colin Powell does.
Remember when we all thought John McCain was a steadfastly principled man who didn't play that nasty political game? Yeah, I know – it seems like so long ago. But let's take a gander at what he's saying in a new radio ad. "President Obama is leading an extreme left-wing crusade to bankrupt America," McCain tells his constituents. "I stand in his way every day."