President Bush gestures next to Republican presidential candidate John McCain at Sky Harbor Airport after Bush spoke at a McCain campaign fundraising event in Phoenix, Arizona.
(Photo: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Evening, June 3rd, in a muggy, dragonfly-beswarmed place called the Pontchartrain Center, just outside New Orleans. Half a continent away, amid yet another legacy-smashing fusillade of unsolicited invective from Bill Clinton, the excruciating Obama-Hillary mess is finally wrapping up, in a pair of anticlimactic primaries somewhere over the darkened plains of Montana and South Dakota. But here in the Big Easy, John McCain has chosen this moment to mount his first general-election attack against the Great Satanic Liberal Enemy - who, as luck would have it, turns out to be a Negro intellectual from Harvard who's never served in the military. And this is supposed to be a bad year for Republicans?
You'd never know it from listening to McCain, whose kickoff speech is the same election-year diatribe that Republicans have been giving for decades, one long broadside against those goddamned overgrown Sixties weenie liberals who hate the flag, love the bomb-tossing enemies of America and are bent on the twin goals of ending the system of free enterprise and placing every aspect of our lives under government control. McCain pegs Obama as a man who wants to take America "backward," to the failed ideas of the Sixties. "I'm surprised that a young man has bought into so many failed ideas!" he says, to furious applause. Then, spitting out a forced, ugly laugh that he must have practiced many (but not enough) times in the bathroom mirror of the Straight Talk Express, he adds, "That's not change we can believe in!"
The choice of New Orleans as a launching pad for McCain's national campaign is the kind of leadenly obvious move that people who do politics for a living are pleased to call "sound strategy": For a candidate supposedly desperate to avoid carrying the Bush label into November, this disaster-stricken city is about the only place in the country that offers a striking visual image of a Bush policy that McCain has actually criticized. So the candidate dragged himself onstage here, ostensibly to perform the dreary business of "distancing himself" from Bush by once again criticizing the president's response to Katrina. The Bush-bashing money quote - "Americans have a right to expect basic competence from their government!" - was featured prominently in media accounts.
But the idea that John McCain is kicking off his trek to the White House by fleeing at top-end speed from the faltering Republican brand is the kind of absurdly facile misperception that only the American campaign press could swallow whole. The reality is that the once independent-thinking McCain has by now completely remade himself into a prototypical, dumbed-down Republican Party stooge - one who plans to rely on the same GOP strategy that has been winning elections ever since Pat Buchanan and Dick Nixon cooked up a plan for cleaving the South back in 1968. Rather than serving up the "straight talk" he promises, McCain is enthusiastically jumping aboard with every low-rent, fearmongering, cock-sucking presidential aspirant who's ever traveled the Lee Atwater/William Safire highway.
Even the briefest of surveys of the supporters gracing McCain's events underscores the kind of red-meat appeal he's making. Immediately after his speech in New Orleans, a pair of sweet-looking old ladies put down their McCain signs long enough to fill me in on why they're here. "I tell you," says one, "if Michelle Obama really doesn't like it here in America, I'd be very pleased to raise the money to send her back to Africa."
The diminutive and smiling old lady's friend leans over. "That's going a little too far, dear."
"Too far?" says the first. "Farrakhan is saying they were brought here against their will, and their bodies are still feeding the sharks at the bottom of the sea! I mean, really!"
"OK, sharks still eating bodies," I say, writing it all down. "Could I have your name, ma'am?"
"Janice Berg," says the first old lady. "And lest you think I'm Jewish, the name comes from Norway. Berg is 'mountain' in Norwegian. I'm part German, part French myself."
A few paces away, I catch up with a man named Ron Saucier and a woman who would only identify herself as Mary. Ron says his problem with Obama is the integrity thing. "He exaggerates too much," Ron says. "He's not honest."
"OK," I say. "What does he exaggerate about?"
"Well, like that time he was saying he had a white mother and a white grandmother," he says.
I ask him how this is an exaggeration.
"Well, he was saying ..." he begins. "As if that qualifies him to ..."
Despite my repeated prodding, Ron seems unable or unwilling to say aloud exactly what he means. Finally, his friend Mary, a grave-looking blonde with fierce anger lines around her eyes, jumps in, points a finger and blurts out one of the all-time man-on-the-street quotes.
"Look, you either are or you aren't," she says.
"And he aren't," Ron says, nodding with relief.
Some of us who have been mesmerized by the Obama-Clinton cage match during the past six months may have developed certain delusions about the state of American politics, in two areas in particular. One is the idea, much pushed by wishful-thinking media commentators like myself, that the abject failure and unpopularity of the Bush administration somehow means the Republican revolution is over, and the mean-ass hate-radio conservatism of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh is finally dead. The other is the even more quaint notion that the historic, groundbreakingly successful candidacies of a black man and a woman have ushered in a futuristic era of political tolerance and open-mindedness.
It's bunk, all of it, and nobody understands this better than John McCain. With his chameleonlike, whatever-gets-you-through-the-night ideology, McCain intends to use the same below-the-belt, commie-baiting, watermelon-waving smear tactics that Clinton used against Obama in the Democratic primaries, except at tenfold intensity. Once the victim of a classic racist smear job in backwoods South Carolina (where he was whipped in the 2000 primary after a Karl Rove whispering campaign suggested he had an illegitimate black daughter), McCain has now positioned himself on the business end of that same deal.
Like Hillary Clinton, an erstwhile vilified liberal who remade herself as a flag-waving, Sixties-bashing champion of "hardworking Americans, white Americans" once the remarkable candidacy of Barack Obama forced her off her old turf, the one-time "insurgent" McCain has finally decided to sail with the wind at his back by going dumb and courting the same talk-radio demographic that used to despise him. What enables him to do so is a key insight: that while George W. Bush may be unpopular as an individual, fear and hatred in this country have never gone out of style.
The remarkable metamorphoses this year of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain would be puzzling and inexplicable were it not for a basic truism of the political-hate game. The reasons McCain and Clinton were villains of the Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity crowd in the first place had nothing to do with their policy positions or votes in the Senate or anything like that. Their real crimes were their arrogant insistence on exercising their intellectual independence, as well as their stubborn refusal to indulge in drooling-caveman demagoguery. The instant both of them crossed into the hater column and began feverishly jacking off the toothless racists of the Deep South with broadsides against the America-hating socialist menace Obama, all was instantly forgiven.
Only a few months ago, I was constantly running into Republicans at McCain events who had profound concerns about the Arizona senator's "liberal" record. But these days I'm hard-pressed to find anyone on the trail who even remembers that McCain once supported Roe v. Wade, and opposed the Bush tax cuts, and compared the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo to the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition, and even heretically claimed that Mexican immigrants were "God's children too." When I ask Mary Morvant, a pro-life Christian, why she's supporting McCain given his record on abortion, she gives a typical answer: "I'm much more concerned about Obama."
McCain enters the general election in the form of a man who has jettisoned the last traces of his dangerous unorthodoxy just in time to be plausible in the role of the torchbearing leader of the anti-Obama mob, waving the flag and chanting, "One of us! One of us!" all the way through to November. He now favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent, he's unblinkingly pro-life every time he remembers to mention abortion, and he's given up bitching about torture. With his newfound opposition to his own attempts to reform immigration policy and campaign finance, McCain is perhaps the first candidate in history to stump against two bills bearing his own name.
McCain's transformation is so complete that at a recent town-hall meeting in Nashville, when asked to name an author who inspired him, the candidate - who once described televangelists of the Jerry Falwell genus as "agents of intolerance" - put none other than Joel Osteen at the top of his list. "He's inspirational," McCain said.
Standing at the meeting, I didn't write Osteen's name down in my notebook - apparently because my brain refused on some level to accept that McCain had actually said it. Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
This dumbed-down, hypersimplified incarnation of McCain offers the vehicle for his new platform, which is just the same old ring-around-the-collar fear-mongering horseshit used by a generation of conservatives, warmed over to fit 2008. In fact, in his stump speeches these days, McCain never veers off a strikingly Bushian binary version of reality, in which the world is divided into clear-cut camps of God-fearing American good and un-Christian, bomb-tossing foreign (and foreign-enabling) evil. McCain talks about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his evil plans for world domination, Hamas and its rockets that rained on poor Israeli children in their Purim (he pronounces it pyoor-eem) costumes. Also in the "bad" column are Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the "far-left radical outfit" MoveOn.org, the wealthy liberals in Georgetown who opposed the gas-tax holiday for ordinary, decent folk because "they can probably walk to work," and the Democrats eager to impose socialism because "they have little faith in the wisdom, decency and cmmon sense of free people."
Break it down and this is basically the same old label game, with McCain trying to rally his crowds against all the major isms: terrorism, socialism, elitism, anti-Americanism. His crude attempts to paint Obama with these brushes are more or less the whole of his argument for the presidency. Obama is terrorist-coddler because he is "ready to talk in person with tyrants" like Ahmadinejad, he hates soldiers because he refused to condemn MoveOn's "General Betray Us" ad, and he's a socialist because he favors health-care reform - despite the fact that the Obama plan isn't "socialized" medicine any more than the universal requirement to buy private auto insurance is socialism.
And when it comes to Obama's and his wife's America-hating, well ... McCain really doesn't need to say anything about that. All he needs to do to remind audiences of Reverend Wright and Michelle "I'm proud of America for the first time" Obama is to offer a few bons mots in the opposite direction. "I seek the office with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me," McCain likes to say. And while he doesn't believe he was anointed by God to lead the great nation of America, he insists, "I am her servant, first, last and always."
That's it - that's the entire argument. McCain is a canny enough old goat to know that the public's insatiable appetite for traitorous enemies will do the rest. He'll wave as many flags and stand in front of as many fucking fighter jets as you like, while the other guy lectures us about why he doesn't always need to wear a flag pin in his lapel and calls a bomb-throwing Sixties terrorist "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" instead of calling for his immediate beheading.
Cindy Oestriecher, a McCain supporter who turned out for his speech in New Orleans, is stumped when I ask her for an example of Obama's lack of patriotism. "What was that thing about anti-American?" she asks a friend. "What were they referring to?"
"What thing?" asks the friend.
"People were talking about that thing, that anti-American thing," Cindy says, frowning.
"You mean about the flag, the thing on the Internet?" the friend replies.
"Yeah, I guess," says Cindy. "The anti-American thing." "That bothers you?" I ask.
"Of course it does!"
"But you don't even know what it is," I say. "You just know that someone else said he was anti-American. You don't even know who it was that said it!"
She shrugs. What's my point? We all know what the deal is. When it comes to presidential politics, you either are or you aren't. And Barack Obama aren't. If you can't grasp the simple math of that statement, you don't know much about elections in this country. It's not about the war, or the economy, or the faltering Republican brand, or any of that: This is about hate and fear, and a dark instinct in our blood going all the way back to Salem, and whether or not a desperately ambitious ex-heretic named John McCain can whip up a big enough mob in time to drown the latest witch.
Which means that despite all the talk about "change," we're once again stuck in the same dumb flashback that has been prodigiously wasting our time for the last four or five decades - the seemingly endless quest to crush the mythical leftist revolution, which for some reason has spent most of the last half-century cleverly disguised as a bunch of ineffectual bourgeois New Yorkers sitting around watching Stanley Kubrick movies and eating whole foods while conservatives took over the world. What's especially creepy about this flashback this time around is that it seems to mirror the tragic loop in McCain's own psyche. For all his frantic recanting of the many embarrassingly bipartisan episodes from his Senate past, McCain has never betrayed even a nanosecond's worth of memories from the central catastrophe of his life: his capture and torture in a Vietnamese prison. But now that he is finally pitted, in the great battle of his life, against a smooth-talking peacenik nearly half his age who wants American trops to withdraw instead of pressing on for "victory" in an unpopular war, McCain can keep reliving all those old hurts and all those old battles over and over again, in front of sympathetic crowd after sympathetic crowd.
Never mind that Iraq isn't exactly Vietnam, or that Barack Obama isn't Jane Fonda - what matters is that the Republicans nominated a wounded old soldier who now gets to spend the next five months trying to exorcise his personal demons, and this serendipitous circumstance fits nicely with the party's national strategy, despite the fact that pinning these old hurts on the likes of Obama makes no sense at all. Still, it's not hard to hear, in McCain's quasi-coherent rants, his bitterness at being abandoned to years of savage tortures while millions of little Hillarys and Bills and Obamas-in-training were getting high and balling each other during the Country Joe and the Fish set at Woodstock, instead of standing up and saluting the "winnable" war effort that got McCain sent to Vietnam in the first place.
Then as now, the crime of the Obama class in the eyes of a wronged veteran like McCain wasn't that they caused these wartime sufferings; it was that they didn't cheer them as righteous and necessary, and unhesitatingly support the sending of more soldiers to the same fate. In the present day, it is George Bush who got us into this new Vietnam-like mess and revived the specter of tortured prisoners, but McCain's anger isn't focused in that direction. He's not mad that it's happening again, not looking to blame the people who actually started the fire. Instead he seems re-energized by the fact that we are all back in that same hell, back to living the PTSD-inducing nightmare that McCain himself never got to leave - and if it takes dumbing down his act and playing to the Rush and Hannity crowd to give his story a happy ending this time around, he won't hesitate. So if you thought Hillary was bad, buckle your seat belts: The really dumb stuff is just beginning.