Who Is the Real McCain?

It's fascinating to watch the media when it affixes a label or otherwise assigns an identity to a politician and, whether true or not, it goes on to become the prevailing conventional wisdom. In the case of former Vice President Al Gore in 2000, the mainstream press was perfectly content to adopt right-wing spin and brand Gore the man who claimed to have "invented the Internet," despite the fact that even a sliver of research would have shown that Gore said no such thing.

Likewise, Arizona Sen. John McCain continues to enjoy the fawning of talk show hosts -- of all political stripes -- and the rote description of him as a straight-shooting maverick, notwithstanding a record that shows him displaying anything but those qualities. On the contrary, rather than being a true outside-the-beltway interloper butting heads with the average, cynical pol, McCain's conduct since 2000 alone shows him to be a consummate politician, whose loyalties, positions and commitments shift with whatever political imperative happens to be temporarily in his face.

Let's get something out of the way right up front: As a veteran -- to hell with that -- as an American, I yield to nobody in my respect for the guts and heroism shown by the younger McCain during his nightmarish captivity in Hanoi in the Vietnam War. Short of giving one's life, there isn't much more a person can do for their country than endure the physical and mental hell survived by McCain during that lengthy imprisonment.

McCain's military past also included another brush with near death when, while stationed on the USS Forrestal in 1967, a rocket from an F-4 Phantom was accidentally launched across the deck, starting a massive fire that killed 134 sailors. The rocket struck McCain's airplane, and he narrowly escaped the resulting explosion, while still suffering shrapnel wounds to his legs and chest. For his military service, McCain received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Regardless of our thoughts about that war, all of us should hold McCain, the young Navy aviator, in unwavering esteem for that part of his biography.

But being heroic in one long-ago facet of life, does not give any of us a permanent free pass for our actions thereafter. McCain's trial-by-fire in Vietnam ended in 1973 and, as a man who aspires to lead the free world as the U.S. president, McCain's record since his military discharge is the most relevant factor of all.

And what exactly is that record?

To be sure, with the help of a media that now behaves more like a steno pool than an investigative body, McCain continues to enjoy being described as a man who sticks to his guns and means what he says, damn the consequences -- even to the point of naming his campaign bus in the 2000 presidential primary, the "Straight Talk Express."

But even a casual observer of the latter-day McCain can't help but see a man who fails to live up to that lofty creed when the need truly exists.

The most recent example of the chameleonlike nature of his values comes in McCain's nauseating display of courting the Religious Right well in advance of the next primary season.

Lauded for a perceived maverick streak, McCain, as a 2000 presidential candidate, famously called the Rev. Jerry Falwell one of the "agents of intolerance" hurting the Republican party. But recently, as McCain has begun laying the groundwork for another White House bid, he sought to shore up his conservative credentials by going hat-in-hand to Falwell's Liberty University in early May to kiss up to him and forgive past deeds.

And it was no secret that Falwell and his merry band in the Religious Right were major players against McCain in the 2000 presidential primary season and are the same people who contributed buckets of money to George W. Bush and who actively participated in his candidacy's rapid destruction after a breathtaking win in the country's first primary in New Hampshire.

But there was McCain recently on Larry King Live, proclaiming his loyalty to the very same people and declaring his admiration, saying, "I admire the Religious Right for the dedication and zeal they put into the political process."

And speaking of that, who among political observers have not been left scratching their heads and wondering how a man who exhibited such a steel backbone as a POW in his younger days could literally and figuratively embrace the same people who so viciously attacked him -- and his family -- in 2000?

Even cynical political operatives were left aghast at the slime that Bush and his campaign team threw at McCain after the Arizona Republican whipped them 49 percent to 30 percent in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

Many political analysts believed that a subsequent McCain victory in South Carolina would provide him with overwhelming momentum, and it was obvious that the Karl Rove smear machine would have to go into full production to keep that from happening.

This was where most of the country was first introduced to the political tactic of "push polling" where, in that race, Republican voters were called by the Bush-Cheney camp and asked, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" It was disgusting enough to use such a race-baiting tactic to begin with, but to use McCain's daughter Bridget -- whom he and his wife had adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh -- because they thought her dark skin might fool a bunch of ignorant, right-wing types, shocked even hardened political pros.

And let's also look at what other indignities Team Bush heaped on McCain in a very small stretch of time.

They had leaflets distributed by local religious fanatics describing McCain as "pro-abortion" and "the fag candidate" (because McCain was the only Republican presidential candidate to meet with the gay Republican men's group, Log Cabin Republicans). They followed that by circulated rumors that McCain had cheated on his wife and they outright refused to denounce local right-wing groups that went after his wife, Cindy, as a "drug addict" due to a problem she once had with prescription painkillers.

And, as we know the GOP loves to do with any decorated veteran, they impugned his courage and patriotism in the worst possible way. Bush's team constantly referred to McCain's alleged "temper problem" and implied that he was mentally unstable based on his time spent as a POW. Rove himself was even accused by the McCain camp of spreading rumors against McCain, such as suggesting that McCain had committed treason while a prisoner in Vietnam.

President Harry Truman, who many politicians hold up as the model of a plain-spoken, man of his word, once sent a letter to critic Paul Hume after an unflattering review of daughter Margaret Truman's singing performance at Constitution Hall, saying that "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

Far from emulating Truman's indignation, the "maverick" McCain, responds to unforgivable and far more sinister attacks on himself and his family by quickly smoothing them over. Despite telling Bush in a debate leading up to the 2000 South Carolina primary that he "should be ashamed," for the false and deeply personal attacks, McCain forgave Bush for all of this, worked his heart out on Bush's behalf in the 2004 presidential election and has embraced him literally and figuratively at every turn.

"I believe that there is a special place in hell for people like those," said McCain when asked later about the tactics used against him and his family, seeming to imply a man with whom these people had irreversibly crossed a hard line.

But then, when turning the other cheek seemed more politically advantageous, McCain said that helping Bush retain the White House in 2004 "… was one of the proudest moments of my life."

This may be because McCain believes that the very people who so thoroughly trashed him in 2000 will support him in 2008 because he's acted like their lap dog for six years and swallowed what would have driven most men to walk up and punch Bush in the nose. But he is wrong. Bush's people will find someone else to support in the next presidential season, will hang him out to dry and laugh behind his back.

What about his Vietnam veteran brothers -- truly, the only ones among his senatorial peers who can understand his difficult military past -- and the lack of response from McCain when they were under similar cruel and unscrupulous attack? Where was McCain then, and where was the gritty nonconformist that so few in the media dare question? It appears that his near-invisible posture can only be attributed to his sitting squarely at the feet of the same GOP masters who brought him so successfully to heel when he dared challenge their chosen White House candidate in 2000.

What should have been overt outrage at the now-famous "swift-boating" of his longtime friend John Kerry, was scarcely more than a whimper of protest. While McCain was heard to quietly comment that the actions of the Swift Boat Liars were "dishonest and dishonorable," he did nothing to exert leadership within the Republican Party and end the vicious attacks on a fellow war veteran.

In fact, fellow decorated veteran -- and former U.S. senator -- Max Cleland delivered a letter to Bush's Crawford ranch at the height of the campaign demanding that Bush "recognize this blatant attempt at character assassination, and publicly condemn it." The letter was signed by seven senators who had served in the military -- but not by Sen. John McCain who, as it turns out, was scheduled to campaign with Bush the following week and went on to give a rousing speech for him at the Republican convention.

And what of Cleland himself, when he received equally hideous treatment at the hands of noted Republican chicken-hawk Saxby Chambliss in the 2002 Georgia Senate contest? McCain gave similar tepid protests against those acts of slander, but did not truly stand up for Cleland, who lost three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam.

All of these examples reveal one simple thing about John McCain: The guts and courage he had at the Hanoi Hilton have long since given way to a political cowardice. He's a shadow of the man that so many Americans admire. The true, relevant incarnation of John McCain is not qualified to be president because, in an ultimate irony, he truly lacks the core conviction that the media seems to assign to him without any significant foundation.

An examination of the Arizona senator's actual legislative accomplishments since winning the Senate seat vacated by Barry Goldwater in 1982 shows a middling performer who, when push comes to shove, would surprise those who buy the notion of McCain as strong on national security, the military and veterans' issues.

While McCain has done some admirable work -- such as his partnership with John Kerry as a member of the Senate Select POW/MIA Committee, which eventually led to normalization of relations with Vietnam and the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill on reforming campaign finance in 2002 -- he has had a shocking record on the things that many people would incorrectly identify as his primary strengths.

The biggest disconnect from reality comes in the public perception of McCain as a potential president whose strong suit would be national security, even though his record in the 109th Congress alone shows a man who follows the senate majority leader's commands, no matter how much weaker those edicts make our country.

Here are just a handful of things McCain voted against in 2005 and 2006, and bear in mind that these 'nay' votes were not procedural devices to simply allow him to vote for Republican bills with similar, noble intent -- though it would certainly torpedo his bipartisan, centrist mantle if that were the case. McCain voted against a large number of such bills to bolster homeland security, support troops and help Veterans, with no Republican alternatives and while offering no substantive legislation himself to strengthen America:

  • Sen. Daniel Akaka's, D-Hawaii, S.Amdt. 3007, which was intended to increase veterans medical services funding by $1.5 billion in 2007 by closing corporate tax loopholes.

  • Three bills by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., -- S.Amdt. 3056, S.Amdt. 1687 and S.Amdt. 1217 -- that would have provided critical funds for interoperable communications equipment for emergency first responders so that they could effectively communicate with one another during natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other public safety situations.

  • S.Amdt.2737, sponsored by Jack Reed, D-R.I., sought a rollback in capital gains tax cuts to purchase much-needed equipment for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have the responsibility to be responsible, not only give the troops what they need but pay for it so we do not increase the deficit," argued Reed on the Senate floor at the time. "I hope we respond by supporting my amendment which takes care of the troops but does so in a responsible way by providing the resources to pay for this necessary equipment."

  • Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., had two amendments defeated by the GOP (S.Amdt. 1189 and S.Amdt. 1190) that would have provided $70 million to identify and track hazardous materials shipments and fund new security programs for inspection of air cargo containers.

  • Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., both had legislation killed -- S.Amdt. 2634 and S.Amdt. 344, respectively -- that would have funded additional medical care and readjustment counseling "… for [Iraq] veterans with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance use disorder."

The common denominator in all of these was McCain, the alleged maverick, doing exactly what his masters told him to do: He voted against every single one of these bills designed to bolster our national security and care for our veterans and active military.

So what should voters truly make of McCain as he begins what will most assuredly be a run for the presidency in 2008? Looking at reality, versus a facade strangely reinforced by an overly fawning media would be a good start.

While McCain stridently voted to impeach and remove Bill Clinton from office during Clinton's 1999 trial, he has done absolutely nothing to call George W. Bush to account for lying America into a war and for breaking the law in spying on millions of Americans without a warrant. And, in embracing Falwell, as he now does, the man many like to consider a moderate is lining himself up squarely with a man who once said, "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh's charioteers … AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."

With friends like those, even in Bush's America, you're not a moderate.

And while some actually believe that McCain takes a "moderate" stance on gay marriage because he has said repeatedly that he will vote against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, that's not exactly his position, as he is too happy to point out to the Religious Right. McCain would only vote against a constitutional amendment if it would supersede a pending, Arizona gay-marriage measure, which he strongly supports.

If the Arizona ban was struck down, McCain would switch gears and vote for a federal prohibition on gay marriage via a constitutional amendment.

"I will vote against a constitutional amendment, which will come before the Senate on this issue, because I think the states should decide. That's the essence of federalism," said McCain, appearing on Meet the Press in April. "In my state of Arizona, we have a ballot initiative on this issue, which I am supporting. And so … if through the court process, they say that that's not constitutional, then I would support a constitutional amendment."

He's also been a leader in the Bush Crew's attempts to blind Americans with fear to regain support for the war in Iraq. "We must win in Iraq. We cannot fail. If we lose in Iraq, they're coming after us. We will fight them somewhere else -- like here," said McCain this month at the Utah Republican Party Convention. "It's all part of a gigantic, titanic struggle between good and evil."

Finally, it is important for voters to examine McCain's entire political identity which shows him to be a 98-pound political weakling who does best when others tell him what to do and who is every bit a George W. Bush conservative.

"I haven't changed. My record is the same on all issues, which is that of a conservative Republican," said McCain in early May. "Not a liberal Republican, not a moderate Republican."

And, on that, it is very important for Americans to take McCain at his word.

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