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The Myth of a Maverick,
by Matt Welch, published Oct. 2007
(Click for Amazon book review)
BOOK REVIEW by OnTheIssues.org:
This book is more an indictment of the mainstream media than an indictment of John McCain. Although it does a pretty good job indicting John McCain too. The book focuses on the "Myth" part of the title -- how the mainstream media were derelict in their duty about reporting on the facts behind McCain's public persona -- as much as on the "Maverick" part -- whether the story behind the myth was true.
We all accept that McCain is a "maverick." The point of this book is that, in fact, he is not. McCain's "maverick" persona is a carefully-cultivated image, which the media willfully bought into. A sample of the indictment of the media from the introduction:
"We all know the dazzling highlights from his larger-than-life biography--the torture in Vietnam, the Straight-Talk insurgency, the campaign finance reform, maybe even some traces from the Keating Five scandal and the 1990s tobacco wars. But how might these experiences translate into future performance as president (or as a key player in another candidate's administration)?
"With such an epic bio to convey, and the happy, anecdote-generating distraction of constant success, there wasn't much time or space to analyze McCain's actual political philosophy and track record. So journalists either pretended he didn't have any (an easy dodge, given his military disdain for partnership and evident disinterest in ideological theory), or suggested his beliefs were unformed but promising, ready to be molded either by sage counselors or a new citizen army. Understandably, the candidate did nothing to discourage these notions.
"As a direct result [of the media's lack of analysis of McCain's epic bio], much of what we think we know about John McCain is wrong. He does not, for instance, talk particularly straight. Nor is McCain much of a reformer, hard as that might be to accept."
The author's primary reason for this book, it seems, is to critique McCain's pro-military stance. The author says McCain would be another Teddy Roosevelt -- in the "speak softly and carry a big stick" sense of American imperialism -- the author says that McCain would be the most militaristic president since T.R, at least. And that he'd be a bad choice for president as a result. The author claims McCain is "a leading member of the 'imperial class'" -- his father and grandfather were admirals; he expresses fondness for expansion of the navy and US control of all sea-lanes; ad inf.
To fully understand this critique, one must understand the author, Matt Welch. Welch is a prolific writer who now writes a lot about McCain. Welch is freelance writer and associate editor at Reason magazine (and its founding editor-in-chief), and an assistant editor of the editorial pages of The L.A. Times.
Reason magazine calls itself the journal of "free minds and free markets". Reason is a thoughtful libertarian journal, and Welch is a leading libertarian thinker. One might describe this book as the libertarian critique of John McCain. As such, it's potentially pretty important for the 2008 election.
Everyone has become familiar with the neocon critique and the evangelical critique of McCain -- as personified by Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, both of whom claim that McCain is not conservative enough. There is another wing of the Republican party -- one which used to be dominant, but is personified in this presidential race only by Ron Paul. Now, with Ron Paul raising $30 million in one quarter, the libertarian wing may regain some of its former dominance. Matt Welch's view will then be at the forefront.
Here is a relevant quip:
-- p. xix
Now let's return to the book's primary critique of McCain as "imperialist," in terms of libertarian philosophy about the military: that war is just another means of expanding government; that the Department of Defense, while justified contitutionally for defense, is more concerned with pork-barrel spending than actually defending America; and that wars like Iraq, with their concomitant appeals to patriotism, are brainwashing of the American people by the federal government. As Ron Paul fades from the race, we will forget that philosophy -- Welch certainly believes it as strongly as does Rep. Paul.
In that context, McCain is now the country's leading warmonger, and therefore all of his "reformer" policies are hypocritical, because REAL reform must begin with the military (because it accounts for such a large part of the federal budget). On issues of the military, McCain is with George W. Bush and the neoconservatives -- who believe that extending American military might is the best means, in the short run, of protecting America's safety; and in the long run, of bringing about worldwide democracy and prosperity. That neoconservative view of the military is diametrically opposed to the libertarian view of the military.
The book explores in detail McCain's other key issue stances as well. Even Welch has to acknowledge that McCain has pushed hard against pork-barrel spending -- his description of how McCain pushed for acknowledgement of pork in the 2002 defense appropriations bill (p. 110-111) is a study in excessivley limited praise: "John McCain went up to the podium with his list of 245 gratuitous pork projects totaling more than $3.5 million in wasteful spending. I gave this body motion like, 'Ok, what are you going to do now?' And his body motion response was, 'That's it. The Speech.' "
On McCain's signature issue of Campaign Finance Reform -- McCain's crowning achievement in the Senate -- Welch is critical, in detail. We leave out a lot on CFR because it is more fully critiqued in the book Citizen McCain -- a thorough review of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In summary for this book, CFR to libertarians is an abomination of the first amendment. The libertarian view is that advertising (or spending money in general) is a form of free speech, and must be unregulated, under the Constitution. So Welch is highly critical of McCain-Feingold.
Other than the heavy libertarian bias, this book is a balanced journalistic study of McCain's record, from a solid critic. Welch provides numerous new insights into McCain's character -- elaborating on the "temper" issue at length, for example, and on how Vietnam affects McCain's policy choices.
So the key question of the title remains: Is McCain a maverick or not? I would say: unambiguously Yes. McCain is seen as a maverick because he does not fit into any of the Republican Party's three "wings": neoconservative, evangelical, nor libertarian. McCain agrees with some of the stances of each of those three wings, and disagrees with some -- which is why purist members of each wing have issues with McCain. McCain has succeeded, by winning the GOP nomination, in making those three wings come to an acceptable conclusion. If he wins in November, McCain's "maverick" position will redefine a new wing of the Republican Party.
My conclusion is exactly the opposite of what Welch suggests (and I'm not anti-Welch -- I agree with him on most philosophy and on most issues). While I disagree with Welch's conclusion, I certainly do agree with his analysis. But Welch SHOULD conclude that McCain is not a "libertarian maverick," which presumably Welch would like McCain to be.
My conclusions: For libertarians in either the Republican or Democratic parties: Read this book because it details where McCain is libertarian and where he is not. For non-libertarians: Read this book because it explains the libertarian critique of McCain. In either case, read on! -- Jesse Gordon, jesse@OnTheIssues.org, Feb. 2008
The Myth of a Maverick,
by Matt Welch, published Oct. 2007.