What have I become, my sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
-- Nine Inch Nails, "Hurt"
When Sen. John McCain looks at himself in the mirror does he like what he sees?
I've never been a fan of the senator, but there was a time when I didn't loathe the man. I was disgusted over his push back of a federal holiday for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1980s, but time passed and by 2000, I was so blinded by my utter distaste from the inarticulate, "reformed" frat boy slacker seed of George Herbert Walker Bush, that McCain seemed endearing. Refreshing even. He was a champion on ethics and campaign finance reform (largely out of the hard lessons learned during to the Keating 5 scandal.) To the media, who he once affectionately called his base, couldn't get enough of his accessibility and loquacity and his affinity for "straight talk."
There was this sense that John McCain was letting you in on what was really going down within the Republican Party. There was even a time, after getting trounced in 2000 by George W. Bush, when he was actively being sought by Democrats to at least become a dependent or switch sides altogether.
He entertained the notion, but like Sen. Chuck Hagel did recently, he declined.
The race in 2000 was devastating to McCain on all fronts. His wife was verbally abused and assaulted for her painkiller addiction. His adopted Bangladeshi daughter Bridget was used as a smear to insinuate that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. He was accused of being a traitor to his fellow POWs. He was accused of being unfit for command due to post-traumatic stress and a bad temper. Karl Rove's minions all but branded the man as insane.
McCain, never good at hiding his true feelings, hated Bush. He might still hate Bush. The 2000 South Carolina leg of the Republican campaign was dirty. The man turned tail on the red hot Confederate flag issue. Bush's team humiliated him. Other conservatives hated him because his ethics reform dogma interfered with being a true GOP party man.
When he endorsed Bush in 2000 after being destroyed by the affable man-child, he could barely contain his bitterness and he spat out several times in a row:
I endorse Gov. Bush! I endorse Gov. Bush! I endorse Gov. Bush! I endorse Gov. Bush! I endorse Gov. Bush!
He said he didn't want the vice presidency. His body language said he didn't want anything to do with him.
What a difference four years make.
After years of being bitter, after the smears, the lies and the obfuscations, Sen. John McCain found himself on a stage helping out a man he hated. Mired in a tough 2004 presidential re-election campaign McCain lent his credibility and brand to Bush, famously captured in the photo of that enthusiastic, but awkward embrace. This snapshot demonstrated McCain had decided if he could not beat them, he would join them.
All was far in love, war and politics.
Old enemies became tepid friends. Bush had an incredible team who could raise funds and get him elected. The both had similar views on the rectitude of the war. The Republican Party was known for rewarding individuals when it was "their time" to be the nominee. McCain was finally willing to capitulate, finally willing to play ball.
Finally willing to bend over and sell his soul in one tender embrace.
Here is how Democratic strategist and former counselor to Bill Clinton, Paul Begala saw this career-defining moment.
It is the defining moment of John McCain's political career: The Hug. George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign needed help. After four years of a surprisingly radical brand of conservatism, Mr. Bush needed some moderate bona fides. After a campaign of fiction and falsehoods that led us to war, Bush needed a credibility transfusion. After the Democrats nominated a certified war hero, John Kerry, Mr. Bush (who famously avoided serving not only in Vietnam but even in the Alabama National Guard) needed a warrior's support.
And so John McCain gave him The Hug.
In embracing George W. Bush that August afternoon in Pensacola, Florida, John McCain embraced Mr. Bush's agenda, his policies, his principles, and his manipulative, mendacious brand of politics. And McCain embraced him with gusto.
This wasn't an irrationally exuberant Sammy Davis, Jr., spontaneously wrapping his arms around Richard Nixon. This was a calculated, choreographed commitment. The John McCain most people thought they knew would never have hugged George W. Bush. More likely, he'd have punched him in the nose. And for good reason.
Put yourself in McCain's shoes. Someone benefited from (and, some believe, orchestrated) the most savage attack on your sexuality, your sanity, your marriage, your wife, and your daughter. He smirked as his supporters attacked your honor, your dignity, your manhood, and your innocent child. What would you do? Seriously. Some of us might have shunned someone who'd treated us that way. Others might have cursed them. Still others might have kicked them in the shin or kneed them in the groin. But not John McCain.
John McCain hugged George W. Bush.
What about forgiveness? you may ask. Good point. But forgiveness starts with confession and contrition, and neither Mr. Bush nor his top advisers have ever manned up and confessed to smearing McCain. Indeed, as recently as 2007, Karl Rove aggressively challenged a questioner who alleged he had "helped spread the false story" about McCain's daughter. "That is absolutely not true, and I take offense," Rove replied to the questioner at Troy University in Alabama. "If you have any bit of evidence that anybody connected with the Bush campaign was involved in that, you bring it forward, because it is a reckless charge."
So why would John McCain embrace George W. Bush? Not to be too simplistic: He wanted to. He believed in the Bush agenda and wanted to advance it into a second term.
But I'd take this one further with Begala.
John McCain embraced Bush for John McCain. Not for the country or ideology or party solidarity. He embraced him because he believed it benefited him and his cause. It gave him leverage. Now W. owned him one. If he became the nominee in 2008 that meant access to W.'s people, donors and team. The same individuals who successfully brought down him and Sen. John Kerry.
No longer the "outsider," he would be in that inner circle by the oldest political deception -- the marriage of convenience.
The base loved Bush, not McCain, and he would never see the White House without the support of the base. The 2000 race had taught him that. So many enemies became friends like Bush, McCain found himself kissing and making up with old adversaries like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the numerous Republican operatives who spread those defamatory tales.
McCain began selling it all away -- his morals, his integrity -- the minute he decided that power trumped all. In his self-prostitution he decided he could make it up to the country later.
If he was the right man for the job, and he'd believed he was, America would understand.
The ends justify the means.
Yet what I've seen lately is a man who has sold so much of himself for victory he is running out virtues to markdown. These last six months John McCain has been hosting a morality fire sale. All items must go to insure the presidency.
Straight talk? Gone. Integrity? Gone. The high road? He's on the low. Experience? Gone with the Palin. Why try substance when you can pull stunts? Why bother with talking to the best of Americans when you can rile up the weak base by appealing to the worst? Let's bring back the ghost of Jesse Helms to reach out with his white hands and snatch the White House away from a steadily advancing Obama.
Early this summer we learned that Sen. Hillary Clinton's fired adviser Mark Penn wanted the Senator to push hard on Obama by painting him as "the other." He wanted her to bring up former Weather Underground founder and 1960s counter-culture activist/reformed domestic terrorist William Ayers, by pushing harder on his "exotic" upbringing, by painting him as unAmerican.
Clinton was accused of a lot of things throughout the 2008 Democratic Primary, but in this one situation the-woman-who-would-not-be-queen said no. She had to draw a line somewhere. Calling Obama a dangerous foreigner was it.
McCain started out the general election, disowning individuals who demagogued Obama for having a Muslim name or those who used racial slurs. He said he was going to run on the issues, but the issues were not in his favor.
McCain tried a lot of things to "define" Obama, but none of them stuck. He's inexperienced! He's a celebrity! He's an elitist! He eats arugala! A lot of the false outrage rang of hypocrisy. McCain, while being in the senate for 26 years had no more executive experience than Obama. McCain was infinitely more wealthy than Obama by virtue of his rich second wife, Cindy's, inheritance. He was a sub par student who got into and got by in the academy trading off his father's well-respected name.
He gained some ground when he pulled out the politrick of picking Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, but in a matter of weeks (and a few nightmarish interviews), he was down again. The thinking class of the Republican Party were already writing his obituary, leaving him alone with the disparate fractions of a broken political apparatus.
Columnist David Brooks of The George Will Revolt (growing larger with every passing day) called McCain's vice presidential select "a fatal cancer to the Republican Party."
Then McCain was struck by his Achilles' heel. Not his temper, but his other Achilles' heel -- the economy.
When the market crashed he was found flat-footed. He gambled again on an "in-name-only" campaign suspension to work on the crisis. He came off as harried and erratic compared to Obama's calm, unflappable demeanor.
He'd done all he could, he sold all he could to get to where he is now. Maybe in his mind he could justify it. He could make it up to America later. He was the right man for the job and Obama wasn't so it was OK. Maybe that's what he told himself when he looked in the mirror before joining in with the angry, fearful mob shouting out "terrorist," "off with his head" and "kill him," during rallies. The mob that was fuming and thrilled every time Sarah Palin pounded Obama for a trumped up relationship with Ayers.
Like a not-so-secret recipe of hate -- add one part Ayers, one part black, one part "secret Muslim" and one part "Hussein" -- no one in the McCain campaign would admit what their alphabet soup was spelling, but his supporters could easily read fill in the blanks.
Terrorist. Dangerous. Manchurian candidate. Foreigner. Black. Bad. "Not one of us."
It's been done since forever and many times it has worked. But this is a different candidate, a different election and a different electorate. Dog whistles are one thing. The tubthumping of Palin, John McCain and a suddenly "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" Cindy McCain, were leading a rallying cry for the natives to grab their torches and pitchforks.
Who did this Obama fellow think he was anyway?
Many people, like pundits/politicos David Gergen, Chris Matthews and Joan Walsh of Salon.com, pointed out that this was going in a scary, old school Strom Thurmond/Richard Nixon, "Southern strategy" direction. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow wondered if this talk bordered on inciting violence. The Secret Service and FBI were already looking into a few more verbose individuals.
Some scoffed at this notion. Especially certain conservatives like Pat Buchanan who thinks almost any smear against a Liberal or a Democrat is fair game. Even if it's a terrorist laden, racialized smear when our country has a history of murdering black people under the most suspect and flimsiest of circumstances.
No one is expecting a return to Bombingham, but the theatrics did not make McCain look good and at the end of the day, in the most recent debate, he couldn't even fling those smears he so forcefully promoted on the stump and in commercials to Barack Obama's face.
McCain had a choice: bite down hard and bend over if he really wants this presidency by any means necessary or try to put out the fire he started?'
It was always a lose-lose.
From The Huffington Post:
The episode reflected the intensity of the anger that many McCain-Palin supporters have for Obama -- anger that was stoked, in large part, by McCain itself. It also underscored just how difficult a situation McCain has walked himself into. Hours before he attempted to calm nerves, the Senator's campaign sent out a statement to reporters defending the remarks of its crowd members.
"Barack Obama's attacks on Americans who support John McCain reveal far more about him than they do about John McCain. It is clear that Barack Obama just doesn't understand regular people and the issues they care about," read a statement from spokesman Brian Rogers. "Even worse, he attacks anyone who dares to question his readiness to serve as their commander in chief in chief. Raising legitimate questions about record, character and judgment are a vital part of the Democratic process, and Barack Obama's effort to silence and shame those who seek answers should make everyone wonder exactly what he is hiding."
He tried to do the later and got booed. His base. His Muslim fearing, fear of a black presidency spewing base turned. They never could trust the bastard anyway. Did John McCain want this thing or not, hard right critics asked? George Bush, the son or the father, never let a little demonization get in the way. What was McCain's problem? Why couldn't he pull the trigger?
Mike Allen of Politico tried to answer this question:
After his first debate with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), both spectators in the hall and commentators on TV noted that McCain had deliberately avoided looking at his rival.
A close McCain friend said the reason is clear: McCain is miserable about having to run a campaign that’s antithetical to his persona.
“He is basically having to be somebody that he isn’t,” said the friend, who remains strongly supportive. “He is just not a guy that goes on the attack in public. For him to be on the attack constantly, attacking Obama’s character … McCain is uncomfortable with that, and it’s made him grumpy.”
That's why when I hear McCain speak and sound lost. When I look into his eyes and see confusion, frustration and exasperation that leads him to Bob Dole-esque flourishes of "Where's the outrage?" in calling Obama "that one." When I watch his campaign oscillate between "straight talk" and "hate talk," I see a man of two minds. One that remembers what he sold of himself to get here. Another that wants to win by whatever it takes.
In his wrestling with the devil we already know who's winning. This leaves the other side to look into the mirror and wonder what has he become. Things have come full circle and he is McSame -- but not for Bush's policies or his ideology -- but because he has become the thing he once hated.
The war hero is now the villian in the story of his life.
But I see McCain looking in the mirror, telling himself it'll all be worth it because he's not doing this to win, not for himself, but for the country. He's simply the better man for the job.
He blocks out the fac that he is steadily morphing into a charicature of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings." McCain nakedly desiring for "his precious" -- the power that comes with being biggest man to walk into any room.
The self-hate and the anger is there. But he will not divert from the path he has embarked. With a soldiers rectitude he will see this through even if the experience leaves nothing resembling the old John McCain behind.
The potential of absolute power corrupts absolutely.