Meet the Senator Most
Likely to Start a Nuclear War
The Real McCain
By JEFFREY ST.
-- - It's November 19, 2004, a mere two weeks after the
election that returned George W. Bush to power, and Senator John
McCain has traipsed off to New Hampshire to give a speech
calling for 50,000 more troops to be sent into the quagmire of
Iraq, press flesh and raise money for an expected run at the
presidency in 2008. John Sununu, former New Hampshire governor
and Bush family consigliere, wryly quipped about McCain's junket
to the Granite State, "What took him so long?"
The press corps, already bored
with Bush and election post-mortems, tags along. McCain's the
darling of the moment, the opinion press's favorite senator, a
media-made maverick, who was sedulously courted by both John
Kerry and George Bush. McCain, true to form, flirted with them
both and sniped at them both, but in the end remained wedded to
the GOP, even as the party fell further under the sway of
neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists that McCain publicly
claims to abhor.
But that's all part of the
McCain profile. He is the senator of the hollow protest. McCain
is nothing if not a political stunt man. His chief stunt is the
evocation of political piety. From his pulpit in the well of the
senate, McCain gestures and fumes about the evils of Pentagon
porkbarrel. He rails about useless and expensive weapons
systems, contractor malfeasance, and bloated R&B budgets.
But he does nothing about them.
McCain pontificates, but never obstructs. Few senators have his
political capital. But he does nothing with it. Under the arcane
rules of the senate, one senator can gum up the works, derail a
bad (or good, though those are increasingly rare in this
environment) bill, dislodge non-germane riders, usually loaded
with pork, from big appropriations bills. McCain is never that
senator. He is content to let ride that which he claims to
detest in press releases and senate speeches.
A recent example. In late
October, McCain went on 60 Minutes to decry a footnote in the
Defense Appropriations Bill of 2004 that transferred billions of
dollars from so-called Operations and Maintenance accounts for
US troops in Iraq to porkbarrel projects, such as gold mines and
museums, in the states of powerful senators. In his stern voice
before the cameras, McCain made congressional looting sound like
a treasonable offense. But what he failed to disclose is the
fact that he actually voted for the bill. Not only that, he was
personally approached by each senator who wanted just such a
transfer of funds and gave it his seal of approval.
McCain the Maverick is a merely
a fine-honed act, underscored by these kinds of casual
* * *
In the past few years, McCain
has been portrayed as one of the doves the senate. It's a
stunning transformation and a phony one. Instead, throughout his
career in Congress McCain has often been one of the hottest
hawks around. During the war on Serbia in 1999, in one
rhetorical bombing run after another, McCain bellowed for
"lights out in Belgrade" and for NATO to "cream" the Serbs. At
the start of May of that year he began declaiming in the US
senate for NATO forces to use "any means necessary" to destroy
McCain is often called a "war
hero", a title adorning an unlovely resume starting with a
father who was an admiral and graduation fifth from the bottom
at the US Naval Academy, where he earned the nickname "McNasty".
McCain flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam, each
averaging about half an hour, total time ten hours and thirty
minutes. For these brief excursions the admiral's son was
awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two
Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese
Legion of Honor and three Purple Hearts. US Veteran Dispatch
calculates our hero earned a medal an hour, which is pretty good
going. McCain was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967 and
parachuted into Truc Boch Lake, whence he was hauled by
Vietnamese, and put in prison.
A couple of years later he was
interviewed in prison camp by Fernando Barral, a Spanish
psychiatrist living in Cuba. The interview appeared in Granma on
January 24, 1970.
McCain's fragile psyche runs on
what Barral described "the personality of the prisoner who is
responsible for many criminal bombings of the people." Barral
went on, "He (McCain) showed himself to be intellectually alert
during the interview. From a morale point of view he is not in
traumatic shock. He was able to be sarcastic, and even humorous,
indicative of psychic equilibrium. From the moral and
ideological point of view he showed us he is an insensitive
individual without human depth, who does not show the slightest
concern, who does not appear to have thought about the criminal
acts he committed against a population from the absolute
impunity of his airplane, and that nevertheless those people
saved his life, fed him, and looked after his health and he is
now healthy and strong. I believe that he has bombed densely
populated places for sport. I noted that he was hardened, that
he spoke of banal things as if her were at a cocktail party.
McCain is deeply loved by the
liberal press. As Amy Silverman, a reporter at the Phoenix
weekly New Times who has followed the senator for years, puts
it, "As long as he's the noble outsider, McCain can get away
with anything it seems -- the Keating Five, a drug stealing
wife, nasty jokes about Chelsea Clinton -- and the pundits will
gurgle and coo."
Indeed they will. William
Safire, Maureen Down, Russell Baker, the New Yorker, the New
York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, have all slobbered over McCain
in empurpled prose. The culmination was a love poem from Mike
Wallace in 60 Minutes, who managed to avoid any inconvenient
mention of McCain's close relationship with S & L fraudster
Charles Keating, with whom the indulgent senator romped on
Bahamian beaches. McCain was similarly spared scrutiny for his
astonishing claim that he knew nothing of his wife's scandalous
McCain's escape from the Keating
debacle is nothing short of miraculous and it's probably the
activity for which he most deserves a medal. After all, he took
more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the swindler
Keating between 1982 and 1988, while simultaneously logrolling
for Keating on Capitol Hill. In the same period McCain took nine
trips to Keating's place in the Bahamas.
When the muck began to rise,
McCain threw Keating over the side, hastily reimbursed Keating
for the trips and suddenly developed a profound interest in
campaign finance and reform.
Yet McCain is legendary among
those who have worked with him for a pathologically vicious
temper, also for his skill in adopting apparently principled
stands which are never exposed to any rigorous test.
The pundits love McCain because
of his grandstanding on soft money's baneful role in politics,
thus garnering for himself a reputation for willingness to court
the enmity of his colleagues.
In fact, colleagues in the
Senate accurately regard McCain as a mere grandstander. They
know that he already has a big war chest left over from the
corporations that crave his indulgence, as chairman of the
Senate Commerce Committee. Communications companies (US West,
Bell South, ATT, Bell Atlantic have been particularly effusive
in McCain's treasury, as have banks, military contractors and
UPS. They also know he has a rich wife and the certain knowledge
that his supposed hopes for an end to soft money spending will
never receive any practical legislative application.
* * *
John McCain says he models
himself after TR. "I'm a Teddy Roosevelt kind of Republican",
McCain told a crowd of about 1,000 people in East Lansing,
Michigan. "I believe America needs a strong leader. And most
Republicans take in pride in identifying with TR, who believed
that second only to the national defense, one of our most
important public duties is to wisely husband the country's
natural resources. Like TR I'll be the kind of president who
will have the courage stand up to the special interests and no.
There are some things they just can't have." The crowd of
students plus those elusive Reagan Democrats cheered lustily as
McCain raised his arms in his now customary crimped victory
Two days later McCain was in
Spokane, capital of Washington's Inland Empire, where the
Republican Party is dominated by big timber, big agriculture and
the hydro-power conglomerate that includes the aluminum
factories, the barge fleets and the pulp mills. Over his 18-year
career in the House and Senate John McCain has rarely let them
down. He has supported property rights legislation, backed the
salvage logging rider, fought measures for stricter control over
pesticides and harshly denounced proposals to breach dams on the
Columbia and Snake Rivers to save endangered salmon.
Even in that crowd, McCain
claimed to be a conservationist: "It's possible for a
conservative president to be an environmentalist." So the
question is what kind of environmentalist is John McCain?
McCain has confused many
observers. Even staunchly Democratic organizations such as the
League of Conservation Voters, can't seem to find it in
themselves to pin him down on the environment. The League's
profile of McCain notes that "on most issues dealing with
Arizona, National Park protection and auto-efficiency standards,
his record ranges from good to excellent". But the group's own
annual ranking (heavily prejudiced against Republicans, it must
be admitted) gives the Arizona senator a lifetime rating of only
20 per cent. Several years he rated a zero.
When he's out West, McCain is
fond of saying that his political mentor was Barry Goldwater.
But McCain is no Goldwater. And that's not a compliment.
Goldwater was, essentially, a western populist, a Libertarian
version of Mike Mansfield, Lee Metcalf and Frank Church.
Goldwater always had a passion for the outdoors and in the end
singled out as his greatest political regret his vote to
authorize the construction of Glen Canyon dam. McCain is not one
for searing self-scrutiny. As with the rest of his political
agenda, McCain's environmentalism has always been pointedly
opportunistic. Voting for a popular Arizona wilderness bill when
he faced a tough election. Introducing legislation at the behest
of local businesses to limit overflights of planes and
helicopters at Grand Canyon National Park. Perhaps, this is a
sign for optimism. After all, he isn't a Wise-Use ideologue.
McCain tends to analyze the
polls with an obsessiveness comparable to the Clintons. Of
particular interest has been Republican pollster Frank Luntz's
work, which shows that upwards of 70 per cent of Republicans
favor strong environmental laws and increased funding for
national parks. The environment, in other words, might be a
wedge issue, one that can win over independents, Reagan
Democrats, Republican moderates and women. Hence, a recent
McCain speech on the environment in San Diego, where he
thundered, "Republicans have to do a lot more than they are
doing today on the environment." Aside from generic calls to
fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (which gets its
money from royalties from offshore oil drilling), McCain tends
to leave the particulars fuzzy.
Of course, McCain is hardly
alone in this regard, of course. Indeed, on a bad day he can
even sound a bit like Hillary Clinton. "One area I believe we
must focus upon is to ensure that our laws and rules are more
performance-based and that we focus better on outcomes rather
than means," McCain writes on his webpage. "To that end we
should work to instill greater flexibility to employ new
approaches to meeting our standards and environmental goals."
His votes in the Senate have
gone somewhat beyond "greater flexibility", embracing takings
legislation, opening of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to
oil drilling, and Bob Dole's regulatory reform bill.
When the interests of the
military and the environment come into conflict, as often
happens in the Western states, there's no question where John
McCain stands. In 1993, McCain placed a hold on the nomination
of Mollie Beatie, Clinton's choice to head the Fish and Wildlife
Service. McCain had been told by his buddies in the Marine Air
Corps that the Fish and Wildlife Service planned to halt
low-level flights above the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife
Reserve, near Yuma, Arizona. McCain's strong-arm tactics worked.
Bruce Babbitt sent the senator a letter pledging that the
military fly-bys would not be impeded. With this easy victory
conquest of Babbitt under his belt, McCain struck again the
following year, when he placed a rider onto the California
Desert Preservation Act, allowing military flights over the
wilderness areas and national preserves created by the act. Now,
McCain shouldn't be forced to shoulder all the blame for that
one. His amendment was fondly received by the bill's author,
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had already perverted the bill by
permitting mining claims inside in the so-called national
In 1999 McCain attached a rider
to the Defense Appropriations bill that would have permanently
transferred to the Pentagon 7.2 million acres of federal
wildlife refuge land managed by the BLM and the Fish and
Wildlife Service, where they would become used as a bombing
range and a testing ground for a new generation of missiles.
McCain's rider exempted the military from conducting any
environmental review of its programs.
One of the issues that divides
the often united Western delegation is the Department of
Energy's plan to bury the nation's commercial nuclear waste
inside Yucca Mountain, an earthquake prone region on Shoshone
lands in western Nevada. The plan, dubbed "mobile Chernobyl",
sets up an MX missile system for nuclear waste, with trains
shipping the radioactive materials from across the country on a
maze of rail routes. McCain, happy to keep the waste out of
Arizona, enthusiastically supports the scheme. And he backs the
creation of even more nuclear waste by standing forth as one of
the nuclear power industry's most reliable allies. "While waste
and proliferation issues present unique challenges, nuclear
energy can play a key role in reducing pollution emissions and
controlling releases of carbon dioxide."
"If there's one thing we know
about McCain, it's that he can't be trusted", says Roger
Featherstone, director of the GREEN, an Albuqueque, New Mexico
environmental group. "Anybody who promotes McCain is
environmentalist is either an idiot or a liar." Much of the
blame for McCain's reputation can be laid to our gullible press.
Living on Earth, the NPR environmental show, recently produced a
puff piece touting McCain as the Senate's most environmentally
conscious Republican. Of course, most of McCain's act is
scripted for the photo op. When the chips are on the table,
McCain can be counted on to do the bidding of industry. Take the
issue of subsidies. In 1996, McCain introduced a bill that would
have slashed corporate welfare, including millions in subsidies
to big timber in form of federally funded logging roads. The
measure was enthusiastically received by liberals and the
Washington press corps, which wasted no time hailing McCain as a
"maverick" and a "renegade Republican". But a few months later
McCain had the opportunity to make part of his plan reality, but
he defected, voting against a measure offered by then-Senator
Richard Bryant, the Nevada Democrat, that would have eliminated
the very same timber road subsidies. McCain didn't explain his
McCain played a malign role in
one of Arizona's most controversial issues, the mad scheme by
the University of Arizona to erect seven deep space telescopes
on national forest lands at the summit of Mt. Graham. Mt. Graham
is known as a sky island, a lush montane oasis rising out of the
Sonoran desert. In its upper reaches, Mt. Graham is cloaked in a
dense alpine spruce-fir forest unique in the world. It is home
to more than 18 endangered plants and animals, the most famous
of which is the Mt. Graham red squirrel, found nowhere else. Mt.
Graham is not only an ecological marvel, it is also a sacred
mountain to the San Carlos Apache.
Neither of these factors carried
weight with McCain, who was hell-bent on doing favors for the
University. He duly introduced legislation exempting the $520
million project from compliance with the Endangered Species Act,
Antiquities Act and the Native American Religious Freedom Act.
In the spring of 1989, the
Forest Service began to raise questions about the project.
Worried about the impacts on the endangered Mt. Graham red
squirrel, Jim Abbott, the supervisor of the Coronado National
Forest, ordered a halt to road construction at the site. The
delay infuriated McCain. On May 17, 1989, Abbott got a call from
Mike Jimenez, McCain's chief of staff. Jimenez told Abbot that
McCain was angry and wanted to meet with him the next day. He
told Abbott to expect "some ass-chewing". At the meeting, McCain
raged, threatening Abbott that "if you do not cooperate on this
project [bypassing the Endangered Species Act], you'll be the
shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest
Service." Unfortunately for McCain, there was a witness to this
encounter, a ranking Forest Service employee named Richard
Flannelly, who recorded the encounter in his notebook. This
notebook was later turned over to investigators at the GAO.
A few days later, McCain called
Abbott to apologize. But the call sounded more like an attempt
to bribe the Forest Supervisor to go along with the project.
According to a 1990 GAO report on the affair, McCain "held out a
carrot that with better cooperation, he would see about getting
funding for Mr. Abbott's desired recreation projects".
Environmentalists attempted to bring an ethics complaint against
McCain, citing a federal law that prohibits anyone (including
members of Congress) from browbeating federal agency personnel.
The Senate ethics committee never pursued the matter. When the
GAO report, condemning McCain, surfaced publicly, McCain lied
about the encounter, calling the allegations "groundless" and
In 1992, Robin Silver and Bob
Witzeman went to meet with McCain at his office in Phoenix to
discuss Mt. Graham. Silver and Witzeman are both physicians.
Witzeman is now retired and Silver works in the emergency room
at Phoenix hospital. The doctors say that at the mention of the
words Mount Graham McCain erupted into a violent fit. "He
slammed his fists on his desk, scattering papers across the
room", Silver tells us. "He jumped up and down, screaming
obscenities at us for at least 10 minutes. He shook his fists as
if he was going to slug us. It was as violent as almost any
domestic abuse altercation."
Witzeman left the meeting
stunned: "I'm a lifelong environmentalist, but what really
scares me about McCain is not his environmental policies, which
are horrid, but his violent, irrational temper. I think McCain
is so unbalanced that if Vladimir Putin told him something he
didn't like he'd lose it, start beating his chest about having
his finger on the nuclear trigger. Who knows where it would
stop. To my mind, McCain's the most likely senator to start a
This article is adapted from
Jeffrey St. Clair's book,
Grand Theft Pentagon.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the
Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of
Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest books,
Born Under a Bad Sky and
Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the
Heartland (co-edited with Joshua Frank) are just out from AK
Press. He can be reached at:
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