We are gathered here today to pay our final respects to John McCain's integrity.
It died recently - turned a triple somersault, stiffened like an exclamation point, fell to the floor with its tongue hanging out - when the senator told Newsweek magazine, "I never considered myself a maverick." This, after the hard-fought presidential campaign of 2008 in which McCain, his advertising team, his surrogates and his running mate all but tattooed the "M" word on their foreheads.
Indeed, not only did they call McCain a maverick, but so did the subtitle of his 2003 memoir. Heck, his campaign plane when he ran for president back in 1999 was dubbed Maverick One. Yet there he is in the April 12, 2010, edition of Newsweek, page 29, top of the center column: "I never considered myself a maverick."
And his integrity kicked twice and was still.
The death was not unexpected. McCain's integrity had been in ill health for a long time. Once, it had been his most attractive political trait, drawing smitten prose from political reporters and intrigued attention from voters sick of the same old, same old from politicians who would bend like Gumby for the electorate's approval.
McCain's integrity wouldn't allow him to be that guy. He was this hard bitten former Navy flier and heroic POW, impatient with the belittling demands of politics as usual, a fellow who would speak an impolitic truth or cross the aisle to work with the opposition because he had this quaint idea that the needs of the country superseded the needs of his party. Then came the GOP presidential primary of 2000 in which McCain was bested by one George Walker Bush and a load of dirty tricks. McCain took note. And his integrity took sick.
The illness began in that selfsame campaign.
By his own admission, McCain lied to voters about his opinion of the Confederate battle flag, fearing that calling it what it is - a flag of treason, racism and slavery - would cost him votes in flag-worshipping South Carolina.
In later years, he embraced right-wing religious extremists he had once condemned. And reneged on a promise that he'd be open to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" if military leaders advised it. And went from opposition of offshore oil drilling to "Drill, baby, drill!" And et cetera.
Two things here: One, all the nattering about flip-flops aside, there is nothing wrong with changing one's opinion. It indicates a thinking mind.
Two, McCain is hardly unique. Indeed, they have a name for people who change their opinions in order to win votes: politicians.
But these are not just changes of opinion we're talking about. Rather, they are betrayals of core principle. And while that might be politics as usual, there is a higher standard for the politician who has positioned himself as a man of uncommon integrity, a purveyor of straight talk in a nation hungry for same. When that man panders, the disappointment is keen.
So it stings to see McCain knuckle under to the ideological rigidity that makes it heresy to cross the aisle, question the orthodoxy or have an independent thought. There's a sense of loss for those who ask of leaders, leadership. It reinforces the cynical notion that there is no one out there who is authentic.
One is reminded of that poignant scene in "The Truman Show" where Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank has just discovered his entire life was a made-for-TV fiction. "Was nothing real?" he asks. A voter who believed in John McCain, who regarded his iconoclastic singularity as a stirring example, might be forgiven for asking the very same thing.
"I never considered myself a maverick?!" Wow.
With those words, McCain completes his transmutation into an avatar of all that is wrong in American politics.
May his integrity rest in peace.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com.
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