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“The Myth of a Maverick”: Matt Welch on GOP Frontrunner John McCain

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Ahead of Super Tuesday, Senator John McCain is leading Republican polls, a significant comeback for a campaign that appeared expired just six months ago. We speak to Reason Magazine editor Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to John McCain. Voters head to the polls in twenty-four states tomorrow in what’s being dubbed “Super Duper Tuesday,” the biggest one-day White House nominating contest in history. Hillary Clinton is locked in a dead heat with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, Senator John McCain is ahead in nationwide polls and is considered to be the GOP frontrunner. His lead marks a significant comeback for a campaign that appeared expired just six months ago.

Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason

magazine. He’s a former editor at the Los Angeles Times. He has written extensively on John McCain and the author of a new book called McCain: the Myth of a Maverick. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome, Matt.

MATT WELCH: Thanks much for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t we just go back to the beginning with John McCain? He comes out of military royalty, as they say. Give us a background on John McCain’s family.

MATT WELCH: John McCain — his grandfather and father were the second-ever father-son four-star admirals in the US Navy. One of the interesting things that I found out in the course of researching my book was that the first-ever father-son admirals in the US Navy were my own great-great-grandfather and his son, strangely enough, and they both commanded people named John Sidney McCain. He comes not only on his father’s side, obviously, from this military background, but I believe his grandmother’s side, as well. In one of his many books that he has written, he talks about how, if anything, his grandmother’s side was more martial and war-making than even on his father’s side. He’s basically participated — some McCains have participated in every military conflict in United States history, except for maybe the first Gulf War. And right now, he has two sons who are in the military, including one who’s deployed in Iraq, if I have my story straight these days.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to being in Vietnam, his father was also — was part of the invasion of the Dominican Republic, is that right, in 1965?

MATT WELCH: He led the invasion of the Dominican Republic. His grandfather — the McCains historically had been in the Army. There was Wild Bill McCain, who was, you know, chasing Mexican bandits along the border. But then his grandfather went into the Navy right as Teddy Roosevelt was building it from, you know, a couple of tugboats into the Great White Fleet and was expanding it greatly and using it as a forward thrust of American power under the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, his book of the role of sea power in world history. And it became a sort of a model based on British colonialism of how a navy can guarantee the world — you know, make the world safe for democracy and bring fruits upon the empire who takes it out there.

So his grandfather was — you know, he was fighting the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century, which was a fairly controversial conflict, and then fought in World War II with distinction. And then his father was actually the commander of all US forces in Vietnam for a couple of years there, including when John McCain, himself, was a prisoner of war.

John McCain, being the third generation here with a lot of expectations on him, rebelled against those expectations. He finished near the bottom of his class, 894th out of 899 at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. And he was a real sort of maverick in the kind of Top Gun way, always getting into trouble, sneaking off to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and date strippers, and had a pretty colorful kind of straining-at-the-leash type of life, because he knew he didn’t really have a choice but to fulfill his sort of family’s destiny.

And he became a flyboy in the Navy and was involved in one of the worst — and in fact, I think the worst — Navy sort of tragedy after World War II, which was the Forrestal fire in Vietnam, which killed 130-plus men. He tumbled off the nose of his airplane as it was sort of exploding on the deck of this aircraft carrier in Vietnam. And then on his — I believe his fifth mission was flying over Vietnam on a — Hanoi on a bombing run and was shot out of the sky and, of course, became a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years, where he, you know, withstood torture with great bravery and distinction. He eventually cracked, like most prisoners of war do under the duress, and taped some statements, you know, disparaging his country and apologizing for his crimes, but stuck it out and then came back to the US in ’73 and became the Navy liaison to the Senate and eventually started his political career in 1982.

AMY GOODMAN: And that political career, he started in Congress?

MATT WELCH: He started in Congress. He humorously — he had divorced his first wife, married a young woman named Cindy — Cindy McCain now, Cindy Hensley. Her father was — owned the exclusive beer distributorship for Budweiser in Maricopa County in Arizona, and so was — had a lot of money. And he was shopping around basically for a congressional seat. On the day that Congressman John Rhodes announced that he was resigning — or actually even before he announced, but on the day that he decided that he was resigning from his seat, John told Cindy, you know, buy a house in the district. So he kind of moved to Arizona with the explicit idea that he would immediately run for Congress and then use that as a springboard to run for the Senate seat when Barry Goldwater retired in 1986.

And what’s very little sort of understood — one of many things that’s little understood about John McCain is that from the beginning he was spending crazy amounts of money. You know, he’s this champion of campaign finance, but he wildly outspent his opponents in Arizona time and time again, especially at the beginning of his career, with his father-in-law’s money, with money from Charles Keating and money from other people, and built up this political career and ended up going to the Senate and becoming the maverick we all know and love.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Matt Welch, looking at the talk show programs yesterday, one of the commentators is Torie Clarke, Victoria Clarke, former Pentagon spokesperson. She was on George Stephanopoulos’s show yesterday on ABC talking about McCain, but they didn’t identify her as a former press secretary for John McCain — is that right? — in his early years.

MATT WELCH: Yeah. You know, I think that’s pretty standard fare, regrettably, in Beltway talk shows. Everyone has long and tangled relationships with everybody else, and people just don’t really feel like revealing it one way or the other.

But, you know, getting back to his military history, this is something, again, that is not very well understood. Not only were his parents — father and grandfather in the military, but his father used to go around giving these lectures about how, you know, the naval gap between the US and the Soviet Union was threatening democracy, how we — his nickname was Mr. Sea Power. You know, he would recite British colonialist poetry around the dinner table. They were constantly talking about the necessity for just a huge US navy to guarantee the world’s security. That is the background that John McCain was just marinating in from the time he was a child. And for much of that period, whenever his father or grandfather was not out at sea, they were living on Capitol Hill, usually in some Washington, D.C. capacity. So he was sitting around the breakfast table with senators and congressmen from the time he was a kid. There’s this big notion that he’s a man of the people, which is actually the name of a biography of him, when in fact, down the line, he’s been very much an elitist his entire life, for both good and for ill. He has just been surrounded by, you know, top historians, top senators and congressmen and top military brass.

But this tradition that he comes from is incredibly interventionist and expansionist. It’s really interesting that in the primaries so far, if you look at the exit polls, among people who voted in the GOP primaries who consider themselves antiwar, anti-the-Iraq-war, and among voters who consider themselves angry at George Bush — and that’s a quote — and among independents, McCain is beating his opponents by two-to-one. If you actually look at people who describe themselves as just Republicans, McCain has not yet won a single primary. So he is basically winning the GOP primaries on the back of the antiwar vote, when in fact he would be the most explicitly interventionist president since Teddy Roosevelt, and he certainly makes George Bush look gun-shy by comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: And when it comes to the future in Iraq, talk about his comments about being there for a hundred years.

MATT WELCH: Well, this is what’s interesting about it — well, first of all, he was asked — he has been asked several times, you know, how long are we going to be there, how long do you foresee troops. And he just says, “Hey, look, how long have we been in Korea? No one complains about that, so we can be there for fifty, a hundred years. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s no casualties. But, you know, if there’s no casualties, then the US people will support it.” He doesn’t understand the question of why is it that it might be bad that the US troops would be on foreign soil in a semi-hostile area for a hundred years. He just doesn’t understand the question, which I think is even more revealing than the answer itself. There is no downside, from his point of view, of the US basically being the world’s policeman.

I asked him once at a press conference that he was giving about defense spending, I said, “Hey, look, you know, we’re spending right now 50 percent of the world’s total defense budget. What do you think about that share? You know, should our share be increasing, of the world’s defense budget, or decreasing or whatever?” He says, Oh, yeah, it needs to increase a lot; we’ve got a lot of trouble in Iran, in Korea and blah, blah, blah, blah. He does not recognize a downside, a sense of game theory in which, you know, you’re the biggest kid on the block and you control everything and take responsibility globally for everything, and so, you know, that it might build up resentments among people who feel like they don’t have responsibility for their own affairs. He just does not see that or understand that, and I think that is kind of frightening, frankly.

And when he talked about strategy, you know, he was asked especially over and over during the period of time when the surge was less popular, let’s say, than it was today, or more controversial than it is today, you know, what happens if it fails? What’s your plan B? And he just said, “My friends, the consequences of failure are too horrible to comprehend.” He actually doesn’t elucidate any kind of strategy that’s interesting. His strategy for the last ten, twelve, fifteen years has been, we need more boots on the ground, period. During the run-up to Kosovo, which he was a huge supporter of at a time when Republicans were much less eager to be interventionist, he was — while supporting it, he was disparaging Bill Clinton by saying, “Look, if we don’t have, you know, tons of boots on the ground over there, we are going to, you know, suffer catastrophe; it’s going to be terrible.” His predictions turned out to be completely wrong on Kosovo, but that’s his prescription at all times: just more boots on the ground, you know, more sacrifice of American blood and treasure. And if you actually ask for specific details on, you know, how is this strategy going to work, how is it not going to work, he doesn’t really have anything to say. He is very fond of saying, you know, the most important thing is victory, period, which is sort of a tautology, not very sophisticated as a strategy. And yet, he is portrayed as this sort of wise eminence on all things military, when in fact all he says is use more power, period.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Welch, can you talk about how John McCain went from one of the Keating Five — and you can briefly explain that scandal — almost took him down out of politics, to becoming really one of the leaders of campaign finance reform?

MATT WELCH: Sure, it’s directly connected. Keating Five scandal was sort of a complicated business in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Charles Keating was the head of Lincoln Savings and Loan and various other savings and loans. He’s based in Arizona. He also had big operations in Ohio and California. He was the first big benefactor of John McCain’s political career in Arizona, for his congressional campaigns and for his Senate campaigns. Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings and Loan were under investigation from federal banking regulators for a couple of years, and he was starting to get a little bit concerned about that. And so, he asked all of the senators that he had been giving a lot of money to to just find out what was going on, to ask the regulators and the investigators what’s the status. Maybe you can — maybe you can ease up a little bit. So there were five senators: John McCain, Dennis DeConcini, John Glenn, Alan Cranston, and there’s always a fifth who I can’t remember off the top of my head [Donald Riegle, Jr.]. And these five senators went and they met first with investigators and then, I think, a second time with regulators to basically inquire what was going on. Immediately, those regulators reported back to their bosses and said, hey, this feels like kind of an undue pressure; I don’t like it. And so, there was a big investigation, an ethics investigation in the Senate, and all senators received some kind of at least censure or slap on the wrist.

McCain was the only Republican on that of those five and long felt that he was made the scapegoat so that it could be sort of a bipartisan thing. Other senators received much sort of worse opprobrium from their colleagues, Alan Cranston particularly. So, at that time —- McCain has described this as the lowest point in his life, I mean, lower than being tortured for five years in Vietnam, because people called his honor into question. He’s very haunted by this sense of honor, mostly from his father. He believes that his father never told a lie and was this incredibly honorable man. One of the reasons why people sort of have a natural affinity towards McCain is that they can sense his being haunted by honor and trying to live up to a high standard.

Anyway, so he comes out of this thing, and he’s being disparaged all over the airwaves, and he’s actually being challenged, really, for the first time in Arizona in a primary campaign and in a regular campaign. And so, he develops this great strategy, which is, all right, I’m just going to answer all the questions from journalists until they run out of questions, basically. And so, he held a press conference, lasted for hours, and developed a strategy overnight that whenever a reporter wants access, he or she will get full access forever. And what he found, which a lot of people find when they do things like this, is that, lo and behold, they were being kind of friendly towards him.

So fast-forward: what does John McCain do? He immediately says, OK, obviously the problem here is money is corrupting politics, which is a very sort of interesting reaction. Most people have spun it very positively of saying, you know, he recognized his mistake, he felt chagrined, he looked to try to fix the process. I think, you know, equally valid is an interpretation of, you know, do as I say, not as I did, which is something that he’s done in all other kinds of sectors. For instance, he has been trying to outlaw all betting on college sports forever. And yet, if you go to his campaign website, you can bet on the Final Four and the brackets for the NCAAs, and he’s an inveterate sports watcher and gambler himself. So he’s always -—

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Welch, we have to break, but we’ll come back. We’re talking to Matt Welch. He’s the editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, and he’s a biographer of John McCain, wrote the book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. We’ll be back with him, and after that, with Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and he is John McCain. Our guest is Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of the Libertarian magazine Reason. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C. He’s a former editor at the Los Angeles Times. John McCain, who says he would be fine if the US military stayed in Iraq for a hundred years, responding to a question at a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire on January 3rd.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: President Bush is talking about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Maybe a hundred.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is that what he said?

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We’ve been in South Korea — we’ve been in Japan for sixty years. We’ve been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans — as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John McCain in New Hampshire. I now want to go to one of the clips where he speaks out against torture, he, himself, a POW in Vietnam. This was John McCain speaking several years ago, November 2005.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Torture does not work. The Israeli Supreme Court in 1999 said that the Israelis could not torture or practice cruel or inhumane treatment on the people they take prisoner. The Israeli defense officials who I have discussed this with say that it doesn’t work, and they use psychological techniques. And so, one, it doesn’t work. Two, it’s so damaging to us in an image fashion. And three, the next conflict we’re in, the government will use that same rationale to inflict serious injury to Americans who may become captive.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Welch, you wrote the biography of John McCain, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, talk about his position on torture.

MATT WELCH: It’s one of the things about McCain that I personally find most endearing or most hopeful in imagining him being the next president, although, you know, I can’t believe we’re at a period in our country where we’re surprised that there’s someone running for president who’s against torture. I don’t really know how that happened. But anyways, no, McCain was tortured, and so were all of his comrades in Vietnam. And as anyone who has seen torture, you know, upfront can testify, they’ll make you say things that aren’t true, so that you get rid of the pain. You know, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

He has, several times in his career, because of his sort of military background, his “country first, party second” background, and also because, you know, he has always been kind of the class clown and pop off, he’s willing to bluntly speak his mind. It’s one of the reasons why Americans find him endearing. And on torture, he’s very happy to tell his Republican colleagues to go fly a kite.

That said, you know, his bill last year trying to eliminate torture ended up being — eliminating habeas corpus sort of by accident on the back end. And so, you know, as often happens, with McCain in particular, he had a great idea, his “heart was in the right place,” quote-unquote, and the legislative result of that wasn’t necessarily something that worked out to the nation’s benefit. But, yes, he has been a great and eloquent defender of the heretofore American notion that our standards of keeping care of our prisoners of wars is going to be better or at least at the highest of universal standards. And for that, you know, he should be commended or just recognized that at least he doesn’t want to build two Guantanamos.


MATT WELCH: He also wants to close Guantanamo and some other things. Yes, I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Why do entitle your book The Myth of a Maverick?

MATT WELCH: Because, basically my book is an attempt to sketch out — it’s an ideological portrait. It’s an attempt to figure out, OK, what does this guy believe about the nature of government? How did he come about those beliefs? And how will that look like in the presidency, in the White House?

But before you get to any of that, you have to peel back all these incredible layers of mythology that have happened, that have been erected around him by a largely adoring press. I mean, he’s probably the most adored Republican, you know, by the media of the last twenty-five years, if not thirty or forty. It’s astonishing how much he’s liked. He’s been given endorsements in something like 90 percent of the top newspapers in the country that have endorsed Republicans in the primaries.

So, I mean, just the idea that he’s a big man of the people, totally mythological, that he’s very much an elitist instead. The idea that he’s some kind of like preternatural straight talker, this is not true. If you look at all at his record, and including his sort of daily comportment on the campaign trail, just, you know, last week, he was basically sliming Mitt Romney, you know, who has plenty of reasons to be slimed, but as being some kind of a cut-and-run anti-surge candidate, and anyone who looked into that realized that that was a pretty scurrilous charge. Any —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his relationship with the President, with George Bush?

MATT WELCH: It’s an interesting and tortured one. You know, McCain was — not only was he running against Bush, but he was running against Bush as very much an insurgent in 2000. The Republican establishment had coalesced around Bush, and McCain and his backers, largely who were neoconservatives and surrounded the Weekly Standard magazine, in particular, Bill Kristol and David Brooks, they were speaking in the language of Teddy Roosevelt and third parties and, you know, this is an insurgency, and maybe the Republican Party is going to get, you know, blown up in the process. It was a very kind of high wire and thrilling kind of act and one reason why a lot of people glommed onto it, because they saw that he was standing up and, you know, having daily Sister Souljah moments with the right. He was calling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” and these kind of things. So he ran this very sort of, you know, insurgent campaign, playing Star Wars music, you know, and George Bush was Darth Vader and McCain was Luke Skywalker.

And then Bush croaked him in South Carolina in a pretty vicious campaign. I don’t know if it was any more vicious than your standard vicious campaign, but then McCain went and sulked basically for a year and a half. There was a lot of talk — we forget about it now, but there was a lot of talk in 2001, especially, of, is McCain going to defect and go to the Democratic Party? He got very interested in campaign finance, which is largely a Democratic initiative. He became much more interested in global warming and regulatory issues, which are more traditionally Democratic. And, you know, there were plenty of articles about both him and the Weekly Standard people and neoconservatives, in general, in late 2001, before September 11th, saying, “Hey, look, you know, they’re basically going to be Democrats this time next year.” Well, September 11th changed all that. And the basic McCain strategy — you know, in 1999 McCain advocated this policy of rogue-state rollback, which is basically preemptive war three-and-a-half years before Bush ever thought of it.

AMY GOODMAN: He threatened North Korea with extinction.

MATT WELCH: He threatened North Korea with extinction, and he elucidated this doctrine by which, wherever there is an authoritarian dictator, we support the insurgents. And, if we support the insurgents and the dictator cracks down, then we have to defend the insurgents with US force. And any time we make a threat and someone, you know, calls our bluff, we also have to use US force. It’s an incredibly interventionist, militaristic approach towards foreign policy that he’s had all along. And it’s the reason why, you know, neoconservatives have flocked to his cause and championed it over the years.

So, after September 11th, Bush started to embrace those ideas, and that kind of a policy structure grafted onto Bush, and so it was natural that McCain and Bush would become closer over that time. And then, starting around 2004 and 2005, when McCain started eyeing the presidency in 2008, he began this long, slow suck-up to the right, particularly social conservatives, and also to Bush, because he wanted to be the sort of frontrunner of the Republican establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened around this period, when, well, John McCain started singing.

MATT WELCH: You know, he —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go to the song.

MATT WELCH: Are you playing the song now? Sorry.


    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: You know that old Beach Boys song, “Bomb Iran”? You know? Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb —- anyway -—

AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Matt Welch?

MATT WELCH: That was, I believe, last February or March or something like that, or maybe January. Look, this is his idea of humor. He does have a kind of blunt and ribald and occasionally awful sense of humor. But it speaks to also his policy ideas. You know, whenever he talks about Vladimir Putin, who is no friend of mine, certainly, but when he talks about him on the campaign trail, he says, “You know, I look into his eyes, and I see three letters: KGB.” He’s constantly rattling sabers in the general direction of everybody, of China, of Russia, certainly of North Korea. At any given time, he considers this or that dictator or authoritarian or just kind of mean guy to be, you know, the transcendent issue that we must focus on right now in this very moment. It is the only sort of lever or is the only grade that he knows to approach the world’s problems, which is, you know, identify evil everywhere and get in evil’s face, which is —

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Welch, we just have sixty seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: But I want to know what brought him back from the edge of extinction — just a few months ago fired his staff, had no money — to being the frontrunner. And do you expect him to win Super Tuesday?

MATT WELCH: I do expect him to win Super Tuesday, because the GOP is coalescing around a frontrunner, which is what they usually do. He came back, because everybody else made such terrible choices. Rudy Giuliani made a terrible choice to run a late-state strategy, Mitt Romney made, I think, an interesting choice of trying to impersonate a social conservative, which left a real social conservative room to kneecap him in Iowa, which is what Mike Huckabee did. And Fred Thompson never really ran an energetic campaign. And suddenly, McCain was able to focus on a retail politics state like New Hampshire and rely on all the free media that he always gets just by nature of who he is and basically survive without having to spend a lot of money, while the rest of his opponents did not attack him at all. They just treated him as a hero who was going to lose. And one by one, they all knocked each other out, and he ended up surviving.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Welch, I want to thank you for being with us, editor-in-chief of the Libertarian magazine Reason. He is the author of the book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

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