McCain's Two-Front War

Article excerpt

You've got to hand it to John McCain. He's probably the only politician on the planet able to infuriate—simultaneously—communists in Vietnam and capitalists in Texas. McCain traveled to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City last week to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of what the locals call "The American War" and to appear on NBC, which paid his way. McCain has long favored good relations with the country he'd bombed and in which he'd been imprisoned and tortured. But on his eighth visit since 1985, he may have undone 15 years of diplomacy in two minutes of Straight Talk. Annoyed at the slow pace of democratic and market reforms, he let fly. "I think that the wrong guys won," he told reporters in the marble lobby of Saigon's old Rex Hotel. McCain had said similar things before, but speaking on the eve of a national holiday, he outraged his hosts. Americans in Saigon also were dismayed. "He's actually helped the [Vietnamese] hard-liners," said an expert on U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

As if scolding the Vietnamese wasn't enough, McCain also stoked his feud with George W. Bush. McCain's meeting with Bush, scheduled for Pittsburgh next week, is still on, but only after McCain threatened to cancel it over the agenda. Bush wants to ask permission to put McCain on a list of vice-presidential contenders. The senator doesn't want to be asked, and hopes to keep his distance from Bush. Navigating Hanoi in a Land Cruiser, McCain came closer than ever to declaring that he would never join the ticket. "I hate to say that, because it sounds like I'm saying I wouldn't want to aid my party or my country. But I guess I'm giving a 'no' answer. I'm giving a 'no'."

McCain is genuinely not interested. He sees himself as the leader of a crusade whose supporters will back Bush only if the two agree on a sweeping reform agenda. That must include a ban on "soft money" contributions, a measure Bush has ruled out. McCain at least wants Bush to agree to make campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of their Pittsburgh summit. Bush, through intermediaries, agreed last week to do so.

There are more personal reasons for McCain's reluctance to be a team member. …