Cover Story

Explaining McCain

McCain has the momentum, the war-hero image, and the media on his side. But the mantle of Reagan? Look closer

Issue: "The McCain craze," Feb. 19, 2000

It walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be ... an elephant? As a newly invigorated John McCain barnstormed across South Carolina and Michigan last week, he talked about tax cuts and invoked the name of Ronald Reagan at every opportunity. Pretty standard Republican stuff. But his newly invigorated critics weren't buying it. Conservatives, long wary of criticizing a bona fide war hero, finally took off the kid gloves and landed some body blows. They accused Mr. McCain of abandoning Republican ideals, preening for the liberal media, and-most seriously, perhaps-adopting a "Clintonesque" philosophy. Alan Keyes, still in the contest for the GOP nomination, went the farthest, saying in a Washington press conference last week that he would leave the party if Mr. McCain were to triumph. Few others were willing to make that threat, but Mr. McCain's surprise win in New Hampshire did appear to help unite establishment Republicans and the religious right, both of whom viewed the Arizona senator as a betrayer of the Reagan revolution. That process accelerated on Thursday, when Steve Forbes dropped out of the contest after finishing a disappointing third in the Delaware primary. Though Mr. Forbes indicated he was not prepared to endorse any of his challengers, his appeal throughout the campaign has been targeted to the most conservative Republicans. With Mr. Forbes out of the race, those voters in South Carolina will likely gravitate to Mr. Bush, who already has the endorsement of nearly the entire GOP establishment in the state. One look at Mr. McCain's policies reveals why so many conservatives find him unacceptable. "John McCain is fast becoming a doctrinaire, orthodox Democrat," editorialized the feisty Manchester [N.H.] Union-Leader. Consider:

  • On taxes, Mr. McCain claims to be a champion of the working class because he wants to cut taxes only in the lower tax brackets, rather than across the board. He makes his case with liberal-even Marxist-terminology, complaining about the "class warfare" waged by the "haves" against the "have-nots." Even President Clinton, in years of fighting congressional efforts for a broad-based tax cut, has resisted using such ideologically charged language.
  • On campaign-finance reform, Mr. McCain would essentially suspend the First Amendment for 60 days prior to any federal election. He would make it illegal for nonprofit groups-from the National Rifle Association to the National Right-to-Life Committee-to advertise against a candidate, publish "report cards" on votes, or even mention a candidate's name in a way that might "materially benefit" his opponent.
  • On abortion, Mr. McCain said recently that he'd leave the decision up to his 15-year-old daughter if she became pregnant. He quickly recanted after a storm of criticism, insisting that he meant to say it would be a family decision.
  • On education, Mr. McCain seeks to appease the bloated public-school bureaucracy by assuring that he wouldn't support a voucher program that shifted money from public to private schools. In a further overture to the teachers' unions, he proposes a 25 percent income-tax credit for good teachers-in effect using the tax code to distribute treats to a single profession and making the federal government the final arbiter of "good" classroom performance.
  • On Social Security, Mr. McCain wants to use income-tax revenues to shore up the faltering system. In that, he goes beyond even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed that payroll taxes, by forging a link between beneficiary and contributor, would prevent Social Security from becoming a massive welfare scheme. Mainstream media outlets have been generally entranced by his message (see sidebar). Even conservative outlets like The Weekly Standard have offered paeans of praise. One image from New Hampshire sums up the relationship: TV cameras caught Tucker Carlson, a Weekly Standard reporter, seated next to the candidate aboard his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. As Mr. McCain held forth, Mr. Carlson leaned into him, his head cocked to one side, practically resting on the senator's shoulder-a pose oddly reminiscent of John and Jesus in Da Vinci's rendition of the Last Supper. The comparison is especially apt given the worshipful nature of most press coverage of the McCain campaign. For those who wonder about Mr. McCain's Republican credentials, his good press is just one more argument in their favor. The last candidate to enjoy such chummy relations with the media was a Democrat named Bill Clinton, back in 1992. Most reporters cite open access to the candidate as the reason for John McCain's popularity with the press corps. Indeed, Mr. McCain for years has carefully cultivated his relations with the national media by quickly returning phone calls and making himself available for interviews on a moment's notice. (Back in Arizona, the local media didn't always fare so well. After the state's largest newspaper, the right-leaning Arizona Republic, published an editorial cartoon critical of Cindy McCain, the senator refused to grant interviews to its reporters for almost a year. Another paper, the alternative New Times, fared even worse: It's been frozen out for more than three years.) But access is only part of the story. The media, as it turns out, have a stake in the McCain campaign. If he were elected president and managed to push through his campaign-finance bill, Mr. McCain would greatly strengthen the role of the press in politics and society. With interest groups muzzled during election season, the media's voice would be greatly amplified. Organizations like National Right to Life would not be allowed to advertise their position or promote their cause, thus allowing the media almost single-handedly to define the topics for discussion. To a profession worried about its position as gatekeeper to the national consciousness, the McCain bill would provide a much-needed boost. Mr. McCain's honeymoon with the public may last only as long as his love affair with the press. Republican voters, after all, have indicated in poll after poll that character counts this year more than policy positions. And so, in the voting booth, they seem to be ignoring his demonstrably liberal positions in favor of his war-hero image. The press could probably reveal the tarnish on that image, if it had a mind to. Far from the reluctant hero that he plays-riding in on the white horse of campaign reform to save his country one last time-detractors say Mr. McCain is, in fact, a calculating and conniving politician who meticulously planned his rise to national prominence. That rise might never have begun had he not been assigned to the Navy's Senate Liaison Office upon his return from five years' captivity in Vietnam. In 1979, while attending a military reception in Hawaii, he met Cindy Hensley, whose father was a wealthy beer distributor in Arizona. The 43-year-old former POW quickly fell in love with the 25-year-old former cheerleader. She was rich, attractive, and well-connected in a state that was due to receive an extra seat in the House of Representatives. She seemed like a perfect match for Mr. McCain, except for one thing: He already had a match. His wife, Carol, who had lobbied for his release throughout his captivity in Hanoi, let him off the hook easily when she granted him an uncontested divorce. The divorce was finalized in April 1980, and Cindy Hensley became the second Mrs. John McCain a month later. In 1982, despite charges of carpet-bagging and buying the election, Mr. McCain won his first political contest and went to the House of Representatives. Then as now, family money played a major role: Over the course of his career, Hensley & Co. has been the second-largest contributor to his election efforts. (Long-distance carrier U.S. West is No. 1.) Cindy McCain's stock in Hensley & Co. pays her more than $1 million a year in dividends, and she owns more than $1 million worth of stock in Anheuser-Busch. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the senator who tried to cripple the tobacco industry in 1998 has been completely silent when it comes to alcohol companies. When his anti-smoking bill was defeated, he railed against cigarette makers, "which have actively worked to hook teens to a killer addiction." Yet he never managed to work up the same sort of righteous indignation toward the industry that keeps a roof over his head. All of the family fortune is in Mrs. McCain's name, according to forms filed with the Federal Election Commission. The only joint assets they list are two small bank accounts totaling less than $15,000. Not even their home in north Phoenix is jointly owned, according to FEC filings. Yet for all his dependence on his wife's money, Mr. McCain doesn't appear to be a particularly attentive husband. In 1994, Cindy McCain admitted she was addicted to barbiturates. To get her fix, she had been stealing Percocet and Vicodin from the American Voluntary Medical Team, a Third World relief agency with which she was affiliated. The offense was serious enough to merit jail time, though she was allowed to enroll instead in a federal diversion program. Her husband's response to the scandal? He claimed not to know about Cindy's addiction-even though she had at one point checked herself in for treatment at a nearby clinic. If the Republican race continues to tighten, voters may take a closer look at John McCain. The danger is that such a close examination may come too late. If he were to win the nomination in August, the press might eventually turn against him, revealing the cracks in his carefully crafted image and handing the election to his Democratic challenger. Or not. Liberal journalists might just leave the image intact, the way they decided Bill Clinton's personal life was off-limits. They could certainly live with his policies.

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