The last time I saw John McCain in Phoenix he was stalking out of Arizona Center into the surface parking lot that used to stand behind the Arizona Republic building and I was on my way to see a movie at the AMC cinemas. He nodded. I said, "Senator." He stalked on. A good fifty feet behind were Cindy and a couple of his children. It was so shocking to see McCain in Arizona, much less downtown, that it made me momentarily take stock. Then I realized he was not supporting the central city — his local office, after all, is near 24th Street and Camelback. This was one of the few places where he could see a movie and not be bothered by constituents.
Wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III has been on my mind after his vicious attacks on his former colleague, Chuck Hagel, during the latter's confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Defense. Juan Cole wrote the hearing "was painful to watch because it displayed the tomfoolery, pretense, self-righteous know-nothingism, and embarrassing lack of contact with reality that dominate the landscape of America’s broken democracy. It was like watching a Nebraska ordinary Joe set upon by circus freaks– a phalanx of moral midgets, stalking cat-men, vicious lobster boys and ethical werewolves." Foremost among them was McCain.
Much was written about how the two had been friends and were fellow Vietnam vets. In reality, I doubt McCain has any friends in the Senate, including his fawning pet Lindsey Graham. And Hagel was a mere ground-pounder, an Army sergeant. McCain was an admiral's son, an elite Naval Aviator.
If the flawed but genuinely courageous and sometimes brilliant Gen. Douglas MacArthur was guided by "duty, honor, country," McCain can be summarized by different words: Anger, recklessness, opportunism. Nobody can take away the grit he displayed as a prisoner of war. But even here, his conduct paled compared with James Stockdale and others. Before and after this ordeal, virtually every biography of McCain is propelled along by those character flaws.
The "maverick" beloved by the elite media is largely a sham. For 2011, the American Conservative Union, which rates voting records, gave him a score of 80; the year before it was 100; his lifetime rating is nearly 83. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action rated him zero for 2010, the most recent year available. Even his successor, Jeff Flake, scored 10. The League of Conservation Voters saw McCain voting frequently against environmental protection. He turned in a pitiful 9 percent in the 112th Congress and zero in the 100th, when he was running for president. In 2003-2004, he did better: 56 percent. But in 1999-2000, just 6 percent. McCain backed away from climate change legislation. His effort, with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, to control reform campaign finance was laudable. But he failed to address the unintended consequences, the flood of soft money. When the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for the oligarchy with Citizens United, McCain was critical but didn't push for legislation or a constitutional amendment to stop it.
In other words, contrary to myth, McCain is a predictable "conservative" Republican. This was especially true where it counted, voting to approve the Iraq War, one of the worst blunders of modern American foreign policy, and unrepentantly continuing to support it. He tore into Hagel for opposing the "surge," when even its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, only gave it a fifty-fifty chance — and now Iraq is a tinder box again. As a presidential candidate in 2008, McCain tossed away his occasional tilts against right-wing orthodoxy, including on immigration and the use of torture. To appease the growing extremism in the party, he made the most reckless decision of his career, making the half-term Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, his running mate. About the only redeeming feature of the campaign was toward the end, as the rallies became ever more hysterical in their anti-Obama frenzy, and he refuted a woman who called Obama "an Arab."
Now, in what may be the twilight of his public life, we're left with anger and score settling. He likely won't run again, so why not show some constructive leadership? Why not actually be a maverick from the krackpot Republican Party. Be a statesman. But, no. The spectacle of McCain would be sad if it weren't so destructive. In this one way, McCain is indeed representative of his state, or at least a powerful part of its electorate and political leadership. He's against everything.
Barry Goldwater had many faults, but he was always a man who loved Arizona. A Phoenix native, Goldwater supported every major effort at improving the city. As a senator, he got in harness in the bipartisan work to win the Central Arizona Project. He worked to improve the lives of the state's tribes. Although Goldwater was a national figure for most of his career in Washington and loved being a celebrity and running with a fast crowd, he never forgot his home state. He also wasn't above admitting when he was wrong, most notably on the Voting Rights Act, after doing so could gain him no votes and only anger the right. And when Richard Nixon had committed acts far less foul than Bush/Cheney, Goldwater was among the elder Republican statesmen who forced him to resign.
Bitten by the political bug as a Naval officer working on the Hill, McCain always wanted to be a national figure. He retired from the service and wanted to run for a safe seat. McCain ended up representing Arizona accidentally, because of his second marriage to the beautiful and wealthy Cindy Hensley.
The Constitution intended the Senate to be a check on the passions of the moment, embodied in the House, and the presidency. McCain failed on both counts, especially in restraining the endless war of the neocon Bush White House. But senators were also intended to support the interests of their states. In the modern era, this included steering federal money back home. Look at an economic dynamo state, and you'll find an effective delegation in Congress, whatever their ideology. If McCain accomplished anything substantial for Arizona during his tenure, I don't know about it. Instead, he was the showboat on network television, the bitter shadow president, as Arizona became an economic and social backwater and now confronts massive challenges, not least climate change and water. Allegedly representing a state endowed with unique natural beauty, his claim to fame is killing light rail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon so that this treasure of the world is ever more clogged with cars. He's done nothing to protect public lands. Nothing to help advance Arizona's cities with federal money for research and transit, or locating high-quality federal facilities there.
John McCain represents many things. Arizona is not one of them. It's just where he nominally hangs his hat. One more carpetbagger. Tragically, the electorate demanded nothing more.
Read more about Arizona's Continuing Crisis here.