The Sound and Fury of John McCain

By Lorraine Woellert


A Memoir

By John McCain with Mark Salter

Random House -- 396pp -- $25.95

One of the myriad perks enjoyed by members of Congress is free parking right at the main terminal of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Senator John McCain enjoyed the privilege as much as anyone. But he couldn't ignore the one-fingered salutes he got from other air travelers who saw him pulling up close to the terminal as they schlepped their bags over acres of asphalt.

And so in 1994, the egalitarian Republican from Arizona sought to revoke the law granting the perk. Fat chance. To McCain's surprise, his well-intentioned but naive motion was soundly defeated. His friend and fellow Republican, Senator Jack Danforth of Missouri, led the opposition and accused McCain of pandering to the public. Treat your position with nobility, Danforth said, and the public will, too.

McCain took the barb to heart but continued in his conviction that politicians must win back voters' trust. Public disaffection and personal integrity are recurring themes in his latest book, Worth the Fighting For. With the help of Mark Salter, his Senate chief of staff and co-writer, McCain picks up the story of his life where 1999's Faith of My Fathers left off. He describes his evolution from national war hero to a man labeled a traitor by members of his own party. He reflects on some of the high points and lowest moments in his career. He makes no apologies for his bald ambition or his hot temper and admits many political missteps. The result makes for enjoyable reading, even though the full force of John McCain's personality doesn't come across.

His book is as much about the people who have shaped McCain as it is about the senator himself. Between historical vignettes, McCain pauses to pay homage to his heroes, who are fighters--men of integrity and honesty. Among them: Representative Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), legendary baseball slugger Ted Williams, and President Theodore Roosevelt. He devotes an entire chapter to defending the late Senator John Tower (R-Tex.), whose bid to become Defense Secretary failed amid allegations of boozing and womanizing. And he heaps praise on longtime friend Senator Russell Feingold (Wis.), a liberal Democrat, for his principled independence and tenacity. Each chapter returns to common themes--McCain's high-minded ideals about statesmanship and integrity and his 20-year struggle to build public trust in politicians and government.

Unlike Danforth, McCain thinks statesmanship alone can't restore the faith of a betrayed electorate. "Public cynicism won't be allayed by defending the honor of politicians. The cynicism is real, profound," and has led to public indifference, McCain writes. Righting government and assuaging public resentment requires an outright crusade, one that McCain has led relentlessly since joining Congress in 1982.

"A rebel without a cause is just a punk," McCain writes, and he has never wanted for one. He has fought against special interests and unresponsive government over and over. He is the Senate's No. 1 warrior against pork-barrel spending. He has taken on Big Tobacco, the National Rifle Assn., drug companies, Detroit's Big Three, and even professional sports. He wins a few rounds here and there but rarely takes the title, since his sweeping efforts tend to fall short of becoming law. Indeed, over time, his proposals have started to sound familiar.

Such self-righteousness in a memoir could become tiresome, but McCain leavens it by reflecting on his own shortcomings, particularly occasional failures to stick to his ideals. When McCain began his campaign in 1999 against George W. Bush for the Republican Presidential nomination, he lectured New Hampshire voters on the danger of political doublespeak. "Spinning," he said, "is lying. I'm not going to spin." But a few months later, during a controversy over South Carolina's flying the Confederate flag, McCain first said the banner was offensive, then waffled. He now admits that he sacrificed ideals for ambition. "It could come down to lying or losing," McCain writes. "I chose lying."

And there's more self-flagellation. An entire chapter is dedicated to the Keating Five affair, when he and four other Senators were accused of interfering with a federal probe of savings and loan hustler Charles Keating Jr., a McCain friend and donor. McCain prostrates himself, but his biggest sin may have been naivete.

Between all the mea culpas, the Senator doesn't give readers enough of his quick, unconventional wit. This is a man who once told this reviewer that when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan dies, "we should prop him up. Keep the sunglasses on him. Have him sit there until he really begins to start to smell bad. We could maybe get away with it for several years with some kind of refrigeration process." That McCain does not surface often enough in this book.

More important, he skims over some of his most pivotal moments. In 1995, McCain took on Big Tobacco, only to be hung out to dry by his own party. He cast the lone Republican vote against the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which he calls "a mishmash of compromises" doomed to failure. And, of course, he finally tasted victory with campaign-finance reform, a law designed to get big money and its corrupting influences out of the political system. After two decades of swinging, McCain finally landed a knockout punch, though the court challenges to the law are just beginning. The rare win is discussed only in the epilogue--but perhaps it's a story for another book.

Woellert covers Congress.

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