I got tired of John McCain’s phony “maverick” act a long time ago, and his hypocritical performance on the Senate floor this week reminded me why.
McCain is a veritable Potemkin village, a conventional Republican pol masking as a truth-telling, straight-talking rebel. Having risen from his sickbed, where he was enjoying Cadillac government health care, he flew across the country to deliver a floor speech lamenting the Senate’s toxic partisanship — scant minutes after he cast a pivotal vote to open the GOP’s toxic partisan quest to strip 20 million people of their health care.
Classic McCain. All talk, no action.
He complained that the today’s Senate is “more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any time I remember.” That was minutes after he voted Yes on the partisan, tribal mission to destroy people’s health care. He complained that the GOP’s kill-Obamacare quest has been conducted “behind closed doors … then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them that [any replacement bill] is better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts.” Minutes earlier, he could’ve stopped the secretive farce in its tracks by casting the pivotal No, but instead he voted Yes to abet the farce.
Yet the myth of McCain lives on. Paeans were written about how the Senate will be diminished when McCain leaves. His floor rhetoric was posted in its entirety. But it’s no mystery why the Washington press corps has long been in love with the guy. It’s simple, really. He talks to them. He gives good quote. Access is often the best aphrodisiac.
When he ran for president in 2000, he sat up front on his Straight Talk Express bus, talking with reporters for hours on end. I did it once, and he was very entertaining. He confessed that the health care issue bored him, he gossiped about people he didn’t like (signaling his distaste by rolling his eyes), and he reminisced about his hijinks as a Navy flyboy (he said he dated an exotic dancer named “Marie the Flame Thrower of Florida”). But I begged off after that. I didn’t want to be a bit player on his laugh track, especially after I heard that he invoked Marie the Flame Thrower on every ride.
Most importantly, McCain has thrown his “maverick” act under the bus so many times, I’ve lost count. Since January, he has voted in accordance with Donald Trump’s wishes 90 percent of the time. During the George W. Bush administration, he voted the Bush position 95 percent of the time, including being a key vote for the disastrous war in Iraq that destabilized the region and planted the seeds of ISIS.
He did vote against Bush’s tax cuts for the rich in 2001, but he switched sides a year later and extended them. He also led the Bush-era fight for campaign finance reform — then proceeded to vote for all the Republican Supreme Court nominees who’ve dismantled his work.
And the flip-flops … good grief. There’s no time to list them all, so here’s a quick ride on the Double Talk Express:
In 2000, he assailed religious-right zealot Jerry Falwell as an “agent of intolerance,” but by 2006 he was speaking at Falwell’s university (his defense: “I love to travel around this country and speak at colleges and universities”). In 1999, despite a solid anti-abortion voting record, he said that Roe v. Wade should remain law of the land because otherwise, “thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations,” but in 2006 he called for Roe’s overthrow because “I don’t believe the Supreme Court should be legislating in the way they did Roe v. Wade.” He used to oppose teaching creationism in the public schools, then he endorsed it. And in 2008, of course, despite his high-minded talk about putting “the country first,” he chose, as his running mate, an unqualified dingbat who couldn’t even name the newspapers she read.
So let us assess John McCain without tears. May we never again see the press corps’ lionizing drivel (Time magazine, 2008: “When he sits on his campaign bus, we reporters gather like kids in the cafeteria huddling around the star quarterback.”) May we never again see the word maverick unless it’s caveated by quotation marks.
And may we always remind ourselves that when the moment to make history truly arrived, when the alleged rebel could’ve stopped Mitch McConnell’s tribal army from kicking millions of Americans to the curb, John McCain did nothing. Except talk the talk.
It was worse than a missed opportunity. It was — oh so predictably — a disgrace.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.