John McCain – A maverick?
Every time the media speak of John McCain, especially lately, they apply the appellation maverick. But is he really a maverick? What has he really done to acquire this title? I was curious so I set off on a quest to find out.
The dictionary defines a maverick as somebody who holds independent views and who refuses to conform to the accepted or orthodox thinking on a subject; a dissenter who takes an independent view apart from his associates.
Given this description, is McCain really a maverick?
John McCain is a product of his military upbringing and long family history of military service, dating back to the Revolution. Military service was a foregone career conclusion for him as was the absolute requirement that he maintain both his own honor and integrity and that of his ancestors. His favorite fictional characters – Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bells Toll and Emiliano Zapata in the film, Viva Zapata – and his favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt, all testify to the kind of deeply internalized military honor and integrity — even fatalism — that serve as McCain’s creed. That’s why McCain works so hard, whenever his honor and integrity seem imperiled, to mend his reputation. After Vietnam, he felt he had lost his honor in succumbing to the tortures of the North Vietnamese. He believed he disgraced himself and dishonored his family heritage. So, he pushed himself relentlessly to regain his physical strength to build a reputation as a top fighter pilot squadron leader.
The appellation of maverick seems to have been acquired during McCain’s first term in the House of Representatives. As a junior member of the House, McCain stood up on the House floor to argue against President Reagan’s decision to send troops into Lebanon. McCain argued against the proposal, saying the troop levels were inadequate and would lead to disaster. In that case, McCain was being who he really was: a military officer. For him not to argue against Reagan’s decision would have dishonored the Naval Captain’s uniform he had so lately worn. Deep in McCain’s being beats the heart of a soldier — first, last and always. However, being true to his uniform does not make the man a maverick.
Several years later, after McCain joined the Senate, he became embroiled in the Keating Five Savings and Loan scandal. His lack of judgment in accepting favors and contributions from (convicted) Keating – and perhaps his not understanding the way lobbying money worked in Washington – deeply embarrassed him when he was brought before the Senate on ethics charges. Believing he had tarnished his sacred honor and integrity, he worked hard to write and pass the McCain-Feingold Bill on campaign finance reform. He knew he had failed to live up to his code of honor so he had to redeem, to himself and to the country, his honor and sense of integrity. Still, though, regaining his sense of honor and integrity does not make him a maverick. The Keating affair and resulting campaign reform act still do make him a maverick. Instead, they indicate a man who, when his judgment failed him, had to regain his honor and the historic honor of the McCain family.
When McCain spoke out against Rumsfeld and President Bush on Iraq, his actions were not motivated by a belief that the war was wrong but rather that not enough troops were deployed. Again, he acted as the Naval Officer he is. Not a maverick, but an Officer.
While reading about McCain, I began to understand what motivates him. I, too, grew up in a military family with a similar, historic family history. Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn how many of his decisions were made on a gut feeling. McCain is not necessarily a heavy thinker. He doesn’t weigh both sides of an argument and come to a practical, pragmatic decision. He’s not reflective and introspective. Nor does he always foresee the consequences of his actions. But going with his gut doesn’t make him a maverick, it makes him a fallible human being.
If John McCain’s sense of honor and integrity were less well developed, those gut reactions might have caused him more serious trouble. He plays a delicate balancing act between his impulsive gut reactions and his deep need to maintain his own sense of honor and integrity.
But John McCain is no maverick. He’s not one who holds independent views and who refuses to conform to the accepted or orthodox thinking on a subject; a dissenter who takes an independent view apart from his associates. He’s first and foremost a military officer, driven by his own personal demons to protect his honor and integrity. He’s a Senator who impulsively acts on his gut and later has to repair the damage done to his honor and integrity.