NPR logo John McCain: The Maverick Who Fell from Grace

John McCain: The Maverick Who Fell from Grace

Watching a romance crash and burn is always sad, and sometimes a bit shocking. Both parties are often guilty of excess in their disillusionment, just as they once went too far in the other direction.

So it has been with the affair between Sen. John McCain and the news media. How bitter to see them unloading on each other like estranged spouses in court.

McCain now says the media are out of date, misinformed and perversely determined to see Iraq as lost. At times, he snarls at cameras and mikes through clenched teeth, as though channeling Spiro Agnew through Dick Cheney.

The fourth estate, responding to the slap, rips McCain for wooing the likes of Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush. Gone is the deference — yea, reverence — once shown to his toughness and ex-POW cred. This week, we saw one-time McCain enthusiasts compare the sight of him striding the streets of Baghdad (with 100 armed Marines, and choppers overhead) to that of Mike Dukakis as a helmet-wearing bobblehead in a tank.

That kind of wound rarely heals — and more often makes divorce lawyers rich.

Need we review McCain's pas de deux with the punditocracy in 2000? As a primary candidate that year, he was an even dearer media darling than Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bruce Babbitt in 1988 or Mo Udall in 1976 — the loved ones of earlier cycles.

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Seven years ago, seasoned campaign hands from big national news organs vied to ride shotgun on McCain's Straight Talk Express. They laughed aloud at his jokes and marveled at his flinty-eyed vision. In an era when candidates all seemed the products of consultants, more celluloid than human, John McCain seemed to be a sudden resurgence of the real.

No wonder he once referred to the press, half in jest, as "my base."

Some say McCain's rapid rise in reporters' esteem began in 1996, when he emerged as a major advocate for Bob Dole's presidential campaign. At that year's national GOP convention in San Diego, McCain was a polo-shirted fixture in the media hotel lobby, holding court at all hours. Gaggles of reporters stood around him, most not even taking notes. It was all about Dole, sure — but McCain was also dazzling on a personal level, an ocean-breeze-bearing candor and self-deprecating wit.

Oddly enough, the Arizona senator previously had been known primarily for unfortunate associations. He had briefly been chairman of Phil Gramm's ill-starred presidential campaign. Before that, he had been tarred by Charles Keating, a disgraced financier of the 1980s who spread a lot of money around on Capitol Hill when the savings and loan industry was collapsing.

McCain not only survived the Keating mess but took from it a new inspiration: cleaning up campaign finance. That mission would become the horse McCain rode to the higher elevations of national note (and intra-party controversy).

In the 2000 race, of course, McCain survived only to the middle primaries. The insistence on speaking his mind that charmed the press left many party stalwarts and social conservatives cold. Besides, the establishment had already aligned behind the governor of Texas.

McCain learned how much that meant after he won New Hampshire — and watched that triumph recede into irrelevance. Next time around, McCain vowed, the powers that be would line up behind him.

And they might have done so, had George W. Bush been denied the presidency in 2000. Four years of Al Gore in the White House might well have set the stage for McCain in 2004. McCain might also have been the obvious heir apparent had Mr. Bush been defeated in 2004.

But instead, this second Bush presidency is having a second term. And that term has, to date, featured an almost unbroken sequence of political disasters. So instead of inheriting the pole position, McCain is heir to the Bush legacy, with all its reversals and disappointments — above all, the miasma of Iraq.

He has given up his brand as a maverick, the brand that won all those plaudits in 2000, in hopes of gaining instead the aura of inevitability. Alas, for him, that sacrifice has not been redeemed.