John McCain’s greatest character flaw as a potential President may be his brash self-righteousness, often expressed in a combative manner that shows little tolerance for even well-founded criticism.
After nearly eight years watching George W. Bush operate with a similar – though arguably less intense – personal style, the American people are fair-warned about the risks of having another President who is blind to his own shortcomings and then bullies those who point them out.
It would be like the fabled “Emperor with No Clothes” – if the Emperor were less a conceited buffoon than a petulant tyrant who punishes the child for daring to take note of the royal nakedness.
When anyone dares observe that McCain, like many other politicians, tells his share of self-serving fibs, he becomes belligerent about his own rectitude as if his assertion of his truthfulness is proof that he is telling the truth.
"I have always had 100 percent absolute truth," a visibly angry McCain told the Des Moines Register editorial board on Tuesday when asked about deceptive elements of his campaign. "An assertion that I have done otherwise I take strong exception to."
Yet, during the same interview, McCain told another whopper (or at least an out-dated claim): that the American public “overwhelmingly” embraced his vice presidential choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, even though new polls show that a majority of Americans doubt her qualifications and that she is becoming a drag on the ticket.
More substantively, McCain lies when he asserts that he has never violated the public trust. He did that earlier this year when his campaign reacted angrily to a New York Times article about his relationships with lobbyists and his connection to the Keating Five scandal two decades ago.
Rather than offer a measured response, McCain authorized the release of a statement declaring: “John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country [in Congress] with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.”
But that statement wasn’t true, even by McCain’s own earlier admissions about his ethical lapses in helping savings-and-loan wheeler-dealer Charles Keating.
In 1987, Keating wanted to frustrate oversight from federal banking regulators who were examining his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. At Keating's urging, McCain wrote letters, introduced bills and pushed a Keating associate for a job on a banking regulatory board. McCain then joined several other senators in two private meetings with federal banking regulators on Keating’s behalf, prompting complaints of pressure from the regulators.
Two years later, Lincoln collapsed, costing the U.S. taxpayers $3.4 billion. Keating eventually went to prison and three other senators from the Keating Five saw their political careers ruined. McCain drew a Senate reprimand for his involvement and later lamented his faulty judgment. “Why didn’t I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For.
But some people close to the case thought McCain got off too easy – and actually may have been the senator most deeply entwined with Keating. Not only was McCain taking donations from Keating and his business circle, getting free rides on Keating’s corporate jet and enjoying joint vacations in the Bahamas – McCain’s second wife, the beer fortune heiress Cindy Hensley, had invested with Keating in an Arizona shopping mall.
In the years that followed, however, McCain not only got out from under the shadow of the Keating Five scandal but found a silver lining in the cloud, transforming the case into a lessons-learned chapter of his personal narrative.
Nevertheless, years later when the Times article questioned just how ethical the “new” John McCain really was, McCain lashed back with a categorical statement that was categorically untrue, saying he had “never done favors for special interests.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Is McCain a Liar?”]
When one considers how other recent presidential candidates, such as Al Gore in 2000, were treated for perceived misstatements about their personal records, it's striking how long McCain escaped serious criticism for lying – and how he has sustained his reputation as a supposed “truth-teller.”
However, in recent weeks, McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” has taken its share of dings and dents. McCain reacted to Barack Obama’s rise in the polls during the summer with a barrage of ads that drew negative reactions from fact-checkers.
McCain approved ads accusing Obama of everything from causing $4 a gallon gasoline (a silly charge) to stiffing wounded U.S. troops in Germany by canceling a visit because he couldn’t bring along cameras (a false accusation).
Then, when McCain introduced the country to his vice presidential choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, there followed a new round of false statements to burnish her reputation as a “reformer,” most memorably her false assertion that “I told Congress, ‘thanks but no thanks’ about that Bridge to Nowhere.”
Palin also aligned herself with McCain’s opposition to “earmarked” spending and the lobbyists who arrange wasteful pork-barrel spending. But Palin herself had hired powerful Washington lobbyists to secure millions of dollars in earmarks for her town, Wasilla, and for her state, including sending off a wish list of nearly $200 million just this year.
Palin’s $27 million in earmarked projects for Wasilla, a town then with about 6,000 residents, were considered such prime examples of Washington pork that they were cited in anti-earmark reports compiled by none other than Sen. McCain earlier this decade.
When the hosts of ABC’s “The View” confronted McCain with Palin’s contradictory record of arranging earmarks while selling herself as a reformer. McCain simply ignored the facts and declared, “not as governor she didn’t.”
Surrounding himself with advisers from George W. Bush’s campaigns, McCain soon was settling comfortably in a world of nasty make-believe. After presiding over a convention notable for its partisan rancor – including endless mocking of Obama as a “community organizer” – McCain said his presidency would be about eliminating “partisan rancor.”
In the days after the Republican National Convention – hoping to maintain his momentum – McCain unleashed attack ads that stretched even modern standards for dishonesty.
McCain and his team blamed Obama for passing a law that would require sex education for kindergarteners and for calling Palin a “pig” when the Democratic nominee criticized McCain’s economic package by saying it was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”
Though McCain himself had applied the common expression to Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, Obama’s use of the image was twisted into a “sexist” attack on Palin.
As for the kindergarten sex-education ad, the McCain campaign had contorted Obama’s support for a program that would teach young school children how to avoid sexual predators into providing them “comprehensive sex education.”
When confronted on “The View” about these two dishonest ads, McCain insisted that “actually they are not lies.” He then went on to argue that his own use of the “lipstick on a pig” remark was different because he was talking about Clinton’s health-care plan.
Barbara Walters, one of the program’s co-hosts, challenged this excuse, noting that Obama was speaking about change, not Palin. McCain responded by saying that harsh things have been said about him, too, and that “this is a tough campaign.”
For a while in early-to-mid September, it appeared McCain’s strategy of strategic lying was paying off. The McCain-Palin poll numbers surged and right-wing activists were energized, while Obama seemed knocked off stride.
However, reality finally bit back, with Palin stumbling through the few press interviews she granted and with the New York Times publishing on Sept. 13 a comprehensive story about McCain’s cynical approach to politics.
The Times story noted that McCain’s “strategy now reflects a calculation advisers made this summer – over the strenuous objections of some longtime hands who helped him build his ‘Straight Talk’ image – to shift the campaign more toward disqualifying Mr. Obama in the eyes of voters.”
The Times added that “for all the criticism [of the lies and distortions], the offensive seems to be having an impact. It has been widely credited by strategists in both parties with rejuvenating Mr. McCain’s campaign and putting Mr. Obama on the defensive since it began early this summer.”
Times columnist Bob Herbert made a similar point in a Sept. 13 op-ed, writing: “While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson ... and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I’ve gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail.”
However, Palin continued bungling even simple questions from interviewers like CBS News anchor Katie Couric -- and Americans began to wake up to the scary notion that the 72-year-old McCain was asking them to put this out-of-her-depth Alaska governor a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Some of Palin’s responses became instant classics of political ineptitude, such as her insistence that her state’s proximity to the eastern most reaches of Russia “certainly does” give her foreign policy experience. Palin said:
“As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state.”
Palin was stumped, too, when asked to name a single newspaper she reads or a U.S. Supreme Court ruling – besides Roe v. Wade – that she opposes.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street financial meltdown put the economy back at center stage of the campaign and forced McCain to retreat from his repeated claim that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong."
Then, on Sept. 24, to show off his leadership skills, McCain “suspended” his campaign and announced he was rushing back from New York to Washington to broker revisions in the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan. He also tried to scuttle the scheduled Sept. 26 debate with Obama.
At the last minute, McCain called CBS’s late-night talk show host David Letterman to cancel a scheduled appearance. However, when Letterman learned that McCain actually was staying the night in New York – and was getting make-up applied for an appearance on CBS Evening News – Letterman spent nearly his entire show bashing McCain.
McCain’s melodramatic arrival back in Washington the next day didn’t go much better. Though congressional leaders already had announced an agreement in principle, McCain arranged a summit meeting at the White House, but it exploded in partisan squabbling.
McCain also backed off his threatened boycott of the debate, but the testiness of the previous few days showed through as McCain avoided eye contact with Obama and repeatedly scolded him as naive.
After House leaders thought they had put the deal back together for a Monday vote, McCain gave a campaign speech taking credit for its expected passage. But the compromise again blew up when conservative Republicans bolted, defeating the bill and touching off a record 777-point drop in the Dow.
As the Bush administration and congressional leaders again worked to pick up the pieces, McCain found himself looking out at the wreckage of his campaign, with polls shifting dramatically – though not decisively – toward Obama.
What has become clear is that at this dark point in the campaign, McCain is letting his dark side out. He snarls and sneers about Obama and snaps sarcastically at anyone who poses a challenging question.
Americans are beginning to see the “Sen. McNasty” who caused even some Republican Senate colleagues to question his fitness to lead the nation. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa once said he was so upset at being the target of a McCain tirade that the two Republicans didn’t speak for two years.
Earlier this year, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi told the Boston Globe that “the thought of [McCaini] being President sends a cold chill down my spine. ... He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”
After McCain secured the Republican nominiation, Cochran – as a loyal Republican – silenced his worries and endorsed McCain.
The American voters will have to decide in just over one month if they wish to follow suit.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 2, 2008.