"The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened?" says Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair. In a lengthy profile of Arizona's senior senator in November's Vanity Fair, Purdum attempts to trace how McCain morphed from "the nation's most popular politician" a decade ago into an "almost unrecognizable" creature apparently willing to jettison all principle to keep his Senate seat. Here are seven takeaways:
McCain fooled the media for years
With Sen. McCain seemingly abandoning the principled independence that long defined him, Purdum says, supporters and reporters (often, the same people) are wondering if the "refreshingly unpredictable" maverick "ever truly existed." Probably not, Purdum concludes. McCain is, and always has been, a "ruthless and self-centered survivor" whose "principal goal has always been self-preservation." Purdum has penned a pleasantly "brutal" exposé, says Mark Schmitt in The American Prospect. But the real story seems to be about how credulous reporters like Purdum helped "a totally imagined figure" dominate U.S. politics for more than a decade.
His favorite animal: The rat
To illustrate his contention that McCain is first and foremost a political survivalist, Purdum relates an anecdote from McCain's former, longtime press secretary, Torie Clarke. At one point, Purdum says, McCain told Clarke "that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well."
McCain really, really dislikes President Obama
"McCain's distaste for Obama is deeply personal," Purdum says, and one former adviser thinks McCain is letting this animosity "get in the way of actually influencing the debate" on topics like war policy. White House aides recall one meeting between Obama and Senate Republicans in May during which McCain accused Obama of misrepresenting Arizona's controversial immigration law. "He would not look at the president, even when he was talking to him," the aide tells Purdum. "You can tell he can barely f--king stand the fact that he was beaten by Barack Obama." This is Purdum's "biggest takeaway," says Matt DeLong in The Washington Post, but keep in mind, that we are seeing the episode "all through the eyes of people who work for Obama."
He defines himself by his enemies
Rather than fighting for something, McCain "has defined himself most clearly in opposition to an enemy," Purdum says — be it his North Vietnamese captors, George W. Bush, or Obama. That is what's behind his big, "sometimes spectacular," influence-building fights, too — campaign finance reform, opposition to the Bush tax cuts, immigration reform. This self-serving, unpredictable scrappiness "is the bracing reality of John McCain. It is the tragedy, too."
His most enduring legacy: Sarah Palin
Picking Palin as his 2008 running mate was not only "the apogee of his hotheaded, cold-blooded self-protectiveness," says Purdum. It is also "surely the single most cynical decision he ever made in nearly 30 years in public life." He has stood by his decision and defended it, but for better or worse, after all his years in Congress, "making Sarah Palin into one of the most influential people in the Republican Party may turn out to be McCain’s most lasting political legacy to his country."
The Senate is his life
"It seems safe to say that McCain would be undone by losing his Senate seat," Purdum says. He has no hobbies, "beyond cooking ribs and watching birds at his cabin," and the Senate is his "whole life, his reason for being." And family history isn't on his side: Neither his father nor grandfather, both admirals, survived long after their careers ended.
But he isn't particularly popular there
From his election to the Senate in 1986 until his "maverick" phase, McCain was "a reliable conservative Republican," Purdum says. But "he was never a team player, never popular with his Republican colleagues, with whom he publicly quarreled on the slightest pretext." That "made him seem more independent," but "for more than two decades, the overriding majority of his Senate colleagues, in both parties, have repaid his angry outbursts against them with active and unrelenting dislike."
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