The long coming rehabilitation of Senator John Sidney McCain III has begun. And, it will likely continue until his longer coming retirement commences – presumably, mercifully, at the end of his fifth term in the United States Senate.
Beltway Snark Laureate, Dana Milbank, tipped the hand of the cocktail set in a fawning, if caveat pocked, column in last week’s Washington Post.
The corporate media are eager to reassess their one time golden boy and Milbank’s column promises to be the first of many more to come from well placed opinionists.
After a conspicuously chummy interview, Milbank declares, “McCain has arguably turned himself into the most important legislator in a generation.”
That’s a big, mavericky sentence from the pasty pundit. Why, it’s almost as if he’s channeling his inner John Sidney. What follows, however, is a decidedly feeble argument for the ‘arguable’ case.
When I caught up with him Monday afternoon, he was pitching legislation to replace the dollar bill with a coin; on Tuesday, he’s talking up legislation allowing people to order cable channels a la carte.
If there is anything arguable, it is that McCain has turned himself into the most inconsequential legislator in a generation. A big mouth, yes. A big portfolio – cable regulation aside – no.
Milbank assures us though that McCain is, “at the center of the debate on war, terrorism, spending, corruption, health care and just about everything else.”
If by center, Milbank means in the middle of our TV screens every Sunday morning then perhaps he has a point. If he means contributing to actual legislation, his point is much less convincing.
McCain may be the most central figure to have accomplished precisely nothing in the annals of American politics. Where is all of the legislation named for this congressional colossus?
There was, ever so briefly, a shiny bipartisan effort at campaign finance reform. It would be called the McCain-Feingold Act. It would be called dead, too – because McCain boldly let it die.
There is little, if anything, else on the esteemed senator’s resume. Cicero, he is not.
The McCain luster started to wear off over a decade ago after he lost the Republican nomination for president to George W. Bush – another colossus. It’s been wearing thin at an increasingly alarming rate ever since. By now, there is little of the mavericky luster left. And, what’s underneath, it turns out, is not very pretty.
It’s said that the media love to build people up so that they might later be knocked down for good measure. Maybe that’s true. Schadenfreude seems a guilty pleasure in Washington, D.C. And, Milbank is among the foremost practitioners of schadenfreude journalism. But it can’t be true all of the time because it wasn’t true this time. The media built the McCain mystique – and left it just there, intact.
It wasn’t anyone else who knocked John McCain down after his steady rise to beltway stardom. Not the media. Certainly, not the Democrats. He managed the fall all by his lonesome – selfenfreude.
He fell when he tried to block the G.I. bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. He fell when he abandoned his position on campaign finance reform. When he reversed his position on immigration reform. When he changed positions on cap and trade. When he pandered to Christian conservatives. When he flipped on the Bush tax cuts. When he allowed the Abu Ghraib investigation to wither into nothingness. When he opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. When he led the petulant resistance to all things Obama – from the stimulus package and Dodd-Frank financial reform to the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Maybe most of all though, John McCain fell when he inflicted Sarah Palin and her rabid band of protobaggers on an unsuspecting nation, allowing her virulent mix of ignorance and hate to infect the body politic.
This is the unvarnished McCain.
What he has done and what he has failed to do has had real world impacts – hurt real people and had lasting effects on our now quite toxic political system. Ask the ‘dreamer’ who came here as a child, grew up here, fought in McCain’s wars but would have no legal standing and no hope of higher education in McCain Country. Ask the Parkinson’s victim humiliated and mocked by teabaggers at a health care rally in 2010. McCain Country, indeed.
There is no gilding this inglorious record. Unless of course, you’re the beltway media.
That crowd has a stake in McCain’s rehabilitation – they spent a helluva a lot of time creating him. He’s theirs alright and they don’t look good when he doesn’t.
The political punditry misses their man crush of years gone by. The days of the Straight Talk Express. He said sensible things then and he held extremists in contempt. He believed in evolution and called the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, “agents of intolerance”.
And, he gave them all of that “access”. The journos love nothing if not their precious access. Alone time.
Oh, the stories – and the buffets! In the year 2000, they laughed, they cried. It was quite a romance with the manly war hero and feisty straight shooter – a crush they would never really get over. The beltway media, they were his forever darlings.
They want back in that relationship before the maverick says his final adios and heads down the dusty trail.
McCain knows the game and he’ll woo the darlings until they make him a shiny maverick again. He doesn’t have to do much. All it takes is a sane sounding utterance here or there – that’s enough to separate him from the crazies and the baggers. That gives the Milbanks the room they need to weave a new narrative.
The other day, McCain grumbled a grudging appreciation for the president’s response to the Zimmerman verdict and that was enough for the darlings to swoon. He’d said something rational – the maverick is back!
Now that he’s not pandering to the baggers anymore, he’ll make some other adjustments too. He’s recently flopped back on immigration – his third or fourth position on the matter in as many years.
With a little work – the right soundbite, the mild policy adjustment – McCain’s luster will be returned. No matter that on the substance, he’s helped make our planet dirtier, our people poorer and our country nastier.
There is no rehabilitation for the man who was touched by torture elsewhere but who would not pursue its practitioners here. The man who was tinged by corruption earlier but who would not complete campaign finance reform later. The man whose son graduated from the United States Naval Academy but who would deny other patriotic sons – soldiers – their own higher education. The man who married his own personal stimulus program but who would see those in the middle class deprived of even the most meager one of their own. The man who knows the horror of war but who would have it as his default foreign policy position.
There is no rehabilitation for the man who once scorned “agents of intolerance” only to invite one of intolerance’s most hideous agents to lead a nation with him.
Let the Milbanks go ahead and try to polish up John McCain. For the rest of us, rehabilitation doesn’t come without redemption.
That would take another political lifetime.