Rumours that John McCain is bananas have done wonders for his presidential bid, observes Mark Steyn
THE first John McCain campaign stop I attended was at Lebanon airport in New Hampshire a few months back. It was a breakfast meeting, so Senator McCain, a short, stiff man with white hair, made a brief speech and then took questions.
'Why's he doing all that nervy twitching?' whispered a friend. 'Is he on cocaine?'
'You're thinking of George W. Bush,' I said. The Texas governor was then in the midst of his highly qualified denials ('I have not done cocaine in the last week and a half).
'Look at his shoulders,' hissed my friend.
'That's not coke,' I said. 'That's dandruff.'
'I know that,' she said. 'But what sort of presidential candidate has dandruff all over him at eight in the morning?'
She had a point. You can forgive the old snowy mantle at the end of a long day's campaigning, but breakfast is different. The official explanation for the dandruff is that McCain was ill-treated by the Vietcong as a prisoner of war and that, 30 years later, he's unable to raise his arms above his shoulders. So he cannot comb his own hair. His aides are obliged to do it for him and, while they're at it, brush down his jacket. As the campaign staff tell it, this is rather a poignant and touching way of defusing the Dandruff Issue. I've come across all kinds of men who bear all sorts of scars of war - from shrapnel to Gulf War Syndrome - but I'd never before met a chap who can honestly say the Vietcong gave him dandruff. I was impressed. It subtly underlined the way McCain is, er, head and shoulders above the other candidates.
But my friend wasn't satisfied. 'In that case,' she wanted to know, 'why didn't they brush down his jacket this morning?' And then all sorts of darker stories begin to emerge - of a volatile, unstable personality who looses torrents of four-letter words at little people for no reason, the sort of fellow whose dandruff you're reluctant to draw his attention to first thing in the morning for fear he explodes. It turns out that, in an ideologically-riven Congress, John McCain is a truly bipartisan figure: both sides loathe him. There's a persistent rumour that the only reason his fellow Republican senator, Utah's Orrin Hatch, decided to get into the race for president last summer is that he can't stand McCain. Senator McCain concedes that he called another Republican, Iowa's Charles Grassley, a 'fuckin' jerk', but says that he and Chuck are now 'friends' ('friends' in the context of the US Senate means they have the warm, close, personal relationship of, say, Suha Arafat and the Israeli government). When he was a humble Congressman, the Atlantic Monthly reported McCain's altercation in the aisle of the House with Democrat Marty Russo: 'Seven-letter profanities escalated to 12letter ones and then to pushes and shoves.' It takes a while to decipher this code but, reconstructing the incident, 'seven-letter' is a reference to 'asshole' and '12-letter' to 'motherfucker'. One mayor back in his home state says that he's not happy with the idea of McCain having his finger on the nuclear button.
So on Sunday the senator released 1,500 pages of medical records proving conclusively that he is not clinically insane though for my own part I'd like to see what's in the handful of pages that were held back 'for personal reasons'. But, for the moment, we must accept the word of his doctors that John McCain is not, to use the medical term, stark staring nuts.
Nonetheless, in private many senators agree with that Arizona mayor. They've been hoping that George 'Dubya' Bush's insurmountable lead would obviate the need to go on the record about McCain the motherfucker. But that's no longer the case. In the last month, rumours that John McCain is out of his tree have done wonders for his campaign. A few weeks back he was a respected Vietnam vet with a strong command of foreign policy, and languishing in the single digits. Then he got transformed into a certifiable wacko whose brain had been fried by the gooks. back in Hanoi, and suddenly the New Hampshire polls were showing the senator running neck and neck with Bush. McCain had found his issue: it's the insanity, stupid!
Back in Washington, the Arizona senator's chums in the media had a new line: 'McCain's a good fit for New Hampshire,' said the pundits. 'Like him, they're kind of cranky, prickly, a little, er, unpredictable up there ....' In other words, he's nuts and we're nuts; it's a shoo-in. After all, in '96 they voted for Pat Buchanan ....'
Well, there's crazy and there's crazy. And, at the Gun Owners of New Hampshire dinner the other night, the consensus was that Senator McCain was not our kind of fruitcake. Here, for example, is Senator McCain's most famous joke, delivered at a GOP fundraiser last year: 'Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her real father's Janet Reno.'
Anyone in public life quickly develops a sense of where the line is - the point you can't go beyond. Around the same time as McCain told his Chelsea gag, it was revealed that the President and Monica had had a good laugh over the so-called 'Apple' joke. (Did you hear about the guy who crossed a Jewish American princess with an Apple Mac and got a computer that'll never go down?) But even Bill Clinton - the first president to discuss his underwear on MTV - doesn't do blowjob gags in public. Every politician I've spoken to about McCain's joke says the same thing; that, even if they thought it funny, they find it impossible to imagine circumstances in which they'd tell that joke in public, into a microphone, to an audience. John McCain didn't unburden himself at the end of a long night in an obscure Shriners lodge out in Hicksville. He did it in mid-evening, in the heart of Washington, at Morton's, a Beltway bastion.
Now if any other GOP senator had chosen to impugn at a stroke the three women closest (officially) to the President - to say that his daughter's ugly, his wife's a dyke and his Attorney General's a man in drag you'd be looking at one dead Republican. But the media chose to avert their eyes. Yours truly reported the incident in these pages, while deploring the joke's premise (Chelsea looks rather good these days). So did McCain's local paper, the Arizona Republic, which the senator has declined to speak to ever since his wife, a recovering drug addict, admitted stealing pills from the American Voluntary Medical Team intended for sick Third World children. The paper responded by running a cartoon showing Cindy McCain in a field of starving infants, holding an emaciated child upside-down by the ankle, with the caption 'Quit your crying and give me the drugs'.
The Republic's readers were not impressed by their senator's sense of humour. As Ed Childers of Phoenix wrote, 'The first thing Senator John McCain did following the telling of a completely derogatory and vile "joke" at the expense of Chelsea Clinton was to write a letter of apology. If he ever says that about either of my daughters, the first thing he'll have to do is call someone with a big spatula to scrape his ugly ass off the floor.'
But to the national press his ugly ass is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. When stories about his marbles finally began to intrude on the McCain-media lovefest, it was widely assumed to be a 'whispering campaign' by Bush staffers. Within days, the press were cheering McCain for being canny enough to turn the issue around and make it work for him.
So, throughout New Hampshire, at one campaign stop after another, someone stands up and asks about the rumours that he's explosive and out of control. 'Boy,' says McCain with mock solemnity, 'that really makes me mad.' The crowd laughs. 'I was just exploding about that earlier this morning.' More laughs. 'Look, my friends, I get angry sometimes. I get angry when I see Congress wasting billions on weapons systems even the Pentagon doesn't want. I get angry when I see 12,000 of our brave fighting men and women living on food stamps. I get angry when I see the lobbyists and special interests in Washington corrupting our democracy. I get angry when I see gross injustices perpetrated. . . . ' Etc.
Actually, there's no evidence that John McCain has ever got angry over any 'gross injustice' or matter of public policy. Every incident recounted by Senate colleagues revolves around some piffling perceived slight; mention weapons systems and McCain is perfectly calm, but use the last piece of Senate toilet paper and he calls you a motherfucker. Nonetheless, his carefully constructed response to questions about his temper - a laboured running joke followed by sanctimonious hogwash - is going down a storm with the national press, who marvel at the ease with which he is making the issue play every which way for him. Doubtless there are those who do believe the guy was psychologically damaged by his years as a POW, but who's to say that's a negative? Baby-boomers -- not least the middle-class media boys who mostly figured out ways to steer clear of the war - have a weird collective guilt complex about Vietnam. They still think it was a dumb, pointless conflict not worth getting killed for, but, precisely because of that, they have an exaggerated respect for military service. Electing a psychologically scarred POW from a war that America lost would validate both his sacrifice and their lack of it in a way that electing, say, Eisenhower wouldn't.
That's why John McCain's military record is working for him in 2000, whereas, in 1996, Bob Dole's record never did. Dole suffered physical injury in a good cause; if McCain suffered mental injury in a stupid cause, that accords far more closely with media boomers' view of warfare, and also broader American notions of victimhood. After all, if Bill Clinton can parlay an alcoholic pa and an abusive gran'ma, or whatever the latest version is, all the way to the White House, who's to say McCain's dysfunctions won't play equally well? It may be Christmas but, as always in America, there ain't no Sanity Clause.
And, having sewn up the boomer guilt-- trippers and the dysfunction junkies, McCain is now wrapping up the sophists. This new proof of his sanity, some commentators say, confirms what they suspected all along - that the so-called 'whispering campaign' by the Bush crowd was really a cunning whispering campaign by the McCain crowd about a non-existent whispering campaign by the Bush crowd, all designed to make the senator look like the victim of a dirty smear and emphasise his military record. And, even if the Vietcong did unglue him, McCain's lost more brain cells than Bush ever had in the first place.
After a month of this, one thing's clear: the Vietcong may not have driven McCain bananas, but McCain does a pretty good job of driving everyone else bananas. He's 100 per cent pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-Martin Luther King Day, but droning media lefties hail him as a 'maverick', 'moderate', 'liberal' Republican. 'He's 1,000 per cent anti-gay,' says Barney Frank, the homosexual Massachusetts congressman, who can't quite figure out why pro-gay, pro-abortion Boston Globe columnists are in love with him. Conversely, conservatives seem to have decided that he's a closet leftie who's unreliable on the issues. At the Gun Owners of New Hampshire dinner, Senator Orrin Hatch hinted that we couldn't trust McCain to protect our Second Amendment rights. 'You'd be shocked at one of the senators who wants to be a leader in this country.... Enough said,' he muttered darkly. If McCain's poll numbers get any better, Hatch and his Senate colleagues won't stay silent.
But who'll listen to them? The supposedly 'tough' 60 Minutes news veteran Mike Wallace turned in a mushy valentine to McCain and then announced that, if he won the nomination, he'd quit his job and campaign for him. God help us. If McCain wins the nomination, I'll quit mine and campaign for Gore.
Copyright Spectator Dec 11, 1999
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