This is quite a change from 2000, when the media’s infatuation helped create the very McCain myth that’s now being reassessed. Take the matter of “character,” for example. McCain can hawk a book titled Character Is Destiny because he’s routinely cast as a moral exemplar — a depiction that starts with his time in a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp, where, by all accounts, he conducted himself heroically. Less widely discussed is what transpired upon McCain’s return to the US, when he philandered and divorced his first wife, Carol, who’d been in a serious car accident while McCain was in captivity. This part of McCain’s bio seems relevant as well — but during the 2000 campaign, it barely got a second look. “Journalists said that McCain should be prez because of his inspiring and instructive life story,” blogger Bob Somerby noted at the time . “Meanwhile, they told that story in selective ways, stressing the suffering and heroism of Vietnam and omitting less admirable episodes.”
There’s plenty of time, between now and 2008, for this part of McCain’s past to get a fresh look. Ditto for other details (his opportunistic switch from Keating Five member to campaign-finance watchdog, say) that undercut the dominant McCain narrative. Nobody wants to tell the same story twice, after all — and if the commentators who deified McCain in 2000 are embarrassed by their earlier credulity, this re-examination could get nasty.
Even if it does, though, the hagiography that’s grown up around McCain will likely prove pretty durable. For starters, the public bought the McCain myth for the same reason the press did: at a time when personal ethical failings, professional corruption, and high-stakes dishonesty have led a good chunk of the electorate to view politics with disgust, it’s downright thrilling to think there’s a politician out there who can rise above the muck. To paraphrase Voltaire, if McCain didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. And whatever new questions surface about McCain in the next two years, the need he satisfies isn’t going away.
But that’s just the half of it. McCain may not be the saint he’s made out to be, but he’s very, very good at playing the part. At a town meeting in Keene, New Hampshire, a few hours before the aforementioned book signing, McCain treated the audience to a virtuoso performance. A fortysomething man who asked despairingly about the situation in Iraq got an answer that, in truth, was pretty boilerplate: things are tough, but we’ve got to soldier on, et cetera, et cetera. But this anodyne content was masked by the senator’s lead-in, which offered a helpful reminder of what the McCain brand is all about: “I’m going to give you some straight talk,” McCain promised at the outset — as if he was poised to do a risky but vital favor for the questioner.