The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point. It’s quite possible that nothing at all has changed about John McCain, a ruthless and self-centered survivor who endured five and a half years in captivity in North Vietnam, and who once told Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well. It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.
McCain has always lived for the fight, and he has defined himself most clearly in opposition to an enemy, whether that enemy was the rule-bound leadership of the United States Naval Academy, his North Vietnamese captors, the hometown Arizona press corps that never much liked him, his Republican congressional colleagues, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama, or J. D. Hayworth. He has always been more of an existential politician than a consequential one, in the sense that his influence has derived not from steady, unswerving pursuit of philosophical goals or legislative achievements but from the series of unpredictable—and sometimes spectacular—fights he has chosen to pick. As his daughter Meghan recently wrote, he has always been more of a craps guy than a strategic poker player. He has never been a party leader, like his old friend Bob Dole, of Kansas, or a wise elder, like his colleague Dick Lugar, of Indiana, or a Republican moderate, like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, of Maine. He flies solo, first, last, and always, and his paramount cause has always been his own. That is the bracing reality of John McCain. It is the tragedy, too.