A Penchant for the Politics of the Poke

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Darman

John McCain's task: convincing a country it needs more daily drama

In 1986, a young Arizona Congressman committed an act of great presumption: he announced his candidacy for the Senate. At 49 years old, John McCain had been a member of Congress for less than four years, a resident of his state for less than six and an active member of the Republican Party for less than 10. And yet what made McCain's gambit truly audacious was the senator whose shoes he believed he could fill: Barry Goldwater, a man whose name was not only the greatest in Arizona politics, but the most hallowed in modern conservatism. Any Republican seeking Goldwater's seat in the Senate couldn't help but think of himself as a steward of the great revolutionary tradition of the American conservative movement.

Certainly, in himself, John McCain saw that man.

Goldwater, McCain would later write in his autobiography, was "an authentic maverick who had, more than any single person, broken the Democratic Party's hold on Arizona politics and the East Coast establishment's hold on the Republican Party." He was "irascible and principled, fiercely independent and deeply patriotic." He was the kind of conservative John McCain wanted to be.

Yet, as he ran for, and won, Goldwater's seat that fall, McCain sensed that somehow the feeling wasn't mutual. The retiring senator had never been particularly warm to McCain the Congressman and seemed openly hostile to the idea of McCain the Senator. Goldwater, McCain would write, "appealed to every principle and instinct in my nature. And I really don't think he liked me much. I don't know why that was."

It was not the last time McCain would be mystified that others failed to see what he saw in himself: a conservative in the movement's most heroic tradition. Goldwater's complaint was geographic--McCain was not a native son of the West. The elder statesman had built his movement around the notion of the West as the home of righteous rebellion, a virtuous land at war with the corrupt forces back East. He once wondered aloud "if this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea." He worried that McCain, a child of the military establishment, educated in the East, just wasn't Western enough.

Two decades later, the Republican nominee is still trying to prove Goldwater wrong. Since his boyhood, the Republican nominee has been drawn to the grand theater of manliness, to tales of men whose bravery led them to death or glory or both. His favorite author is Hemingway and his hero is Teddy Roosevelt, who taught that the strenuous, unpredictable life was the only life worth living. In the arena, he has embraced conservatism less as an ideology than as a style of living--a politics of drama, daring and flare.

His fondness for the theatrical links him to the great leaders of modern conservatism. From William F. Buckley Jr. and Goldwater, to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, the most successful conservative statesmen have, at every turn, framed the cause of the right as an epic, urgent struggle for good in the face of evil. With his improbable choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain showed his favor for the politics of grand gesture. If he had to do what was expected of him, satiate the box-checkers on the right, he would do it with a wicked grin, choosing a woman with a Jack London resume, a surprise from the last frontier.

In his long career in Washington, D.C., however, McCain's embrace of the dramatic tradition in conservatism has also caused him many problems on the right. Nearly three decades after the Reagan Revolution, conservatism has become the one true church in the Republican Party, and woe to him who dares to depart from orthodoxy. McCain's congenital need to provoke, which drew him to conservatism in the first place, alienates him from the movement of today. …