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The weirdest thing about today’s longish profile in the Times of John McCain is that it has nothing to say about any meaningful skills or traces of intelligence of any kind.
Well, almost nothing.
Beyond, that is, his ability to be a good guy, a guy’s guy, fun to be around, and ready to use the personal connections fate delivered him on a platter to achieve goals he and his friends desired. He’s described, essentially, as a naturally charming salesman from an influential military family, long known for enjoying partying and whose career advances were plainly greased by powerful friends. Change “military” in the last sentence to “political” and you have a pitch-perfect description of George W. Bush. Why do Republicans seem to think this flavor of history constitutes a presidential résumé?
After returning from the Vietnam war, McCain became the leader of a fighter squadron in Florida, intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, a highly regarded admiral in the navy. But a superior officer identified talents of McCain’s that could flourish elsewhere:
Admiral James L. Holloway, the chief of naval operations, saw other uses for Mr. McCain. Mr. Holloway knew that Mr. McCain’s father had once excelled as liaison to the Senate. And though the son had earned a reputation as a playboy at the Naval academy, Mr. Holloway thought then-Commander McCain might have inherited the skills and judgment needed to deal with senators.
“He could smoke a cigar and play a little poker,” Mr. Holloway recalled in an interview. “But he didn’t let the situation get out of hand. He could tag along and take care of them and pay the bills and remember where they parked the car. And he was very circumspect. He didn’t get them in trouble.”
And, unsurprisingly, McCain really shone in that role (emphasis added).
One of several senate military liaisons assigned as advocates for their services and escorts for official travel, Mr. McCain quickly emerged as the senators’ favorite. He had a thick head of hair as white as his dress uniform and he showed a natural politician’s gift for winning over an audience. He excelled at leavening official business with a spirit of fun_ — telling deadpan stories about his years “in the cooler,” playing marathon poker games on flights overseas, or surprising senators at a refueling stop in Ireland with a sidetrip to Durty Nelly’s, a 17th century pub. He was the epitome of cool, one senator’s son recalled, with a pack of Marlboros in one hand and Theodore H. White’s memoir “In Search of History” in the other.
The article describes how McCain’s political career was guided and advanced by the famously hard-drinking and (to use a a word from the article) “womanizing” (what a fucking weird word that is! could you imagine saying manizing?) John Tower, McCain’s mentor and “father figure,” and by Senators William Cohen and Gary Hart, his buddies. Here’s how the buddies got to be buddies:
A trip to Asia in late 1978 cemented their bond. Mr. McCain and the two senators stole away from official briefings to stroll in Tokyo’s Ginza district of nightclubs and restaurants, visit the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok and take a memorable midnight tour of what Mr. Hart remembered as that city’s “light and dark sides.” In a memoir, Mr. Cohen recalled drinking beer with Mr. McCain at the Hyatt Regency bar overlooking Seoul, watching beautiful Korean women seduce a tipsy traveler.
”He was a salesman par excellence,” Mr. Cohen recalled in an interview, crediting Mr. McCain with redirecting his career by persuading him to join the Armed Services Committee.
The three became regulars together at the Monocle, a watering hole near the Senate. “We would laugh and tell stories about our colleagues,” Mr. Hart recalled. “ ‘So-and-so said something in a caucus meeting.’ He found it fascinating.”
And McCain found in the “high-living” John Tower a soulmate.
One of Mr. McCain’s first jobs as liaison was accompanying a delegation Mr. Tower led to the Verkunde conference, an annual security meeting in Munich during the Bavarian equivalent of Mardi Gras. The conference became known as kind of senatorial spring break.
The event has grown “a lot tamer” since the late seventies, recalled Senator Cohen, who described the heyday of the Verkunde conference vividly in his novel, “Dragon Fire”: “Beer and passions flowed. All restrictions were off. Grounds for divorce were suspended. Members of Congress, particularly the unmarried ones, would look at the German women, who were ready and willing for the taking, and think they had slipped the surly bonds of moral conformity.”
When McCain astonishingly decided that a life in politics—which for him was clearly a euphemism for guzzling large amounts of alcohol with other naughty guys also into “politics”—was proving more congenial to his temperament than one in the military, his drinking pals were right there for him.
His Senate friends were already moving to jump-start Mr. McCain’s new career. Mr. Cohen connected Mr. McCain with an experienced political consultant, J. Brian Smith, who had initially dismissed working for such a neophyte. And, Mr. Cohen said, he also encouraged Mr. McCain to look away from his previous home in Florida and toward Arizona. His new wife came from a prominent family there, a safe Republican House seat was expected to open up, and Senator Barry Goldwater was expected to retire soon as well.
Mr. Tower did more than anyone else to help. He lent Mr. McCain his fund-raising consultant, raised money for him and enlisted one of Arizona’s most popular Republicans to endorse Mr. McCain over two more experienced primary candidates. “Whatever I asked him for, he gave without hesitation,” Mr. McCain recalled.
Where the article might have really done some damage to McCain’s image, by depicting clearly the vileness of his abandonment of his first wife after she became disfigured in an automobile accident, it takes pains to pull its punches. As McCain “was turning 40 and unsure of his path” :
His marriage to Carol McCain, a former model who was nearly crippled in a car accident while he was imprisoned, was unraveling. He was involved in a series of “dalliances” outside his marriage, he later acknowledged to his biographer, Robert Timberg.
The article offers no evaluation of this fact by anyone. Then, much later in the piece, we discover that, conveniently for his political aspirations, “His new wife came from a prominent family” in Arizona. Obviously, the word “wealthy” was deliberately avoided. As was any mention of the fact that McCain began his affair with the new wife while still married to the first, and that the children from his first marriage refused to attend the second. Here’s Wikipedia (today, anyway) on the topic:
During their time in Jacksonville, the McCains’ marriage began to falter. McCain had extramarital affairs, and he would later say, “My marriage’s collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine.” His wife Carol would later echo those sentiments, saying “I attribute [the breakup of our marriage] more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else.”Considering that he seems never to have behaved as someone older than 25, that’s quite a statement. Wikipedia again:
In April 1979, while attending a military reception for senators in Hawaii, McCain met and began an extramarital relationship with Cindy Lou Hensley, seventeen years his junior, a teacher from Phoenix, Arizona who was the daughter of James Willis Hensley, a wealthy Anheuser-Busch distributor, and Marguerite “Smitty” Hensley. . . .The McCains separated in late 1979; Carol McCain accepted a divorce in February of 1980, and John McCain filed for and obtained the uncontested divorce in Florida on April 2, 1980. He gave her a settlement that included houses in Virginia and Florida and financial support for her ongoing medical treatments resulting from the 1969 automobile accident; they would remain on good terms. McCain and Hensley were married on May 17, 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, with Senators William Cohen and Gary Hart as best man and groomsman. McCain’s children were upset with him and did not attend the wedding, but after several years they reconciled with him and Cindy. Carol McCain became a personal assistant to Nancy Reagan and later head of the White House Visitors Center. Nancy Reagan’s relationship with John McCain turned cold for a while following the divorce, but eventually they renewed their friendship; the same happened with most of McCain’s other friends, who were eventually won over by his combination of charm and penitence.If he weren’t so charming, in other words, people would still despise him for what he did to his first wife.
There is one tiny part of the article that offers an evaluation of McCain’s skills and judgment unrelated to drinking and having fun, however. It comes from a former Navy superior.
His close ties with Mr. Tower . . . helped Mr. McCain earn high marks from his Navy bosses, albeit with some reservations about his grasp for details.If McCain gets elected, I’m moving to Amsterdam. Of course, that’s what I said about George Bush. In 1988. And 2000. And 2004.
“Sometimes you had to really explain things to him and put him in a context that he really appreciated,” said former Admiral George Kinnear, Captain McCain’s Pentagon superior. “But he was a hard worker once he bought off on an issue.”
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