As South Carolina's Republican primary comes closer, a strange phenomenon that no one foresaw has dramatically altered the GOP: the rise of Arizona Sen. John S. McCain. New Hampshire conservatives, moderates and independent voters all jumped on the McCain bandwagon. Why? One word: character. And as I sat back listening to pundit after pundit talking about McCain's character I got very confused; were they talking about the John McCain that I knew? It couldn't be.
What a difference a few years make. In the mid-1980s, a group of five "performers" attempted to do their best rendition of the Jackson Five's smash hit "Whatever you got, I want." But while the Jackson Five made a cameo on SNL during the seventies, this group, known as the "Keating Five" made a cameo in S&L--the savings and loan scandal. Yes, only about 10 years ago John McCain was brought before the Senate Disciplinary Committee for his role in the "Keating Five" scandal. McCain accepted about $112,000 from convicted white-collar felon Charles Keating in exchange for assisting in a lobbying effort with federal prosecutors.
In addition, McCain and his wife made at least nine trips on Keating's planes including three Caribbean getaways. Later McCain would reimburse Keating--after facing national humiliation. But he never returned the profit that his family made on their $350,000 dollar investment in a Keating shopping center. This is Mr. I-support-a-massive-campaign-finance-reform-initiative-and-a-government-not-dominated-by-special-interests? Right.
This big trend bucker indeed seems to have a general fondness for big bucks, or at least those possessing big bucks.
Not only did McCain have a longstanding relationship with Keating, he had a big affinity for Bananas. No, he wasn't really a Chiquita guy, he liked other bananas, a man by the name of Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonano who headed the New York crime family bearing his name. McCain liked Joe Bananas so much that he sent him birthday cards, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Sergeant Integrity associating with known mafia types? Something's wrong with that picture.
Finally, he seems to fall a little short in the true love category. He cared about his first wife so much that he had no problem cheating on her (he openly admitted infidelity in his 1999 biography) and ultimately divorcing her after she waited five-and-a-half years for him when he valiantly refused to leave a concentration camp in Vietnam. Instead, he found love where he has made a pattern of finding it and everything else, in wealth; new wife Cindy had a cute smile and, by the way, the bank account of her family's large Budweiser beer distribution company. Cindy, a woman who doesn't exactly look in her couch for spare change when she wants to order pizza, certainly hasn't hurt his bid for the White House. Despite her financial influence, the new marriage meant so much to McCain that he ignored his wife to the point where she became a vicodin and percocet addict. "Maybe I was wrapped up too much in Washington and my ambitions to pay as much attention as I should have," McCain recently admitted on a Dateline NBC interview.
The point of all of this is not to vilify John McCain. But isn't it amazing that this man is America's candidate of integrity? Character? Ridiculous. John McCain has some serious character flaws.
Yet Americans still embrace him. Why? Not because they fail to see all of this information (it isn't buried very deep) but instead because he doesn't "spin" it. Ask John McCain about the Keating Five. He'll tell you. And he'll say it was one of the biggest regrets in his entire life. Ask him about his association with the rich and powerful, and he will not deny it. Ask George Bush about photos where he has white stuff on his upper lip, and he'll claim it's a milk mustache.
Americans want to forgive candidates for past wrongs if they face up to them. They have proven this in the past by either picking up or not picking up on the news media's cues. In this case, the media hasn't covered McCain's mistakes all that much because after confronting him on the issues, there is little story that remains. This is the post-Clinton lesson--if you screw up, admit it and move on.
McCain might do an excellent job in the Oval Office if elected. But this has nothing to do with his character. If people vote for him, it should be because he has pledged to pay off the debt and restore fiscal accountability, because he understands military and foreign policy. The character thing has to stop.
The new trend in politics is to admit serious wrongs years later. And while this certainly is better than the Clinton-two-step, it still doesn't erase wrongs. McCain might make a good president, but because his policies work, not because he's some patron saint. Suggesting he's anything other than a typical politician is well, bananas. And I'm not referring to Joe.
Brad R. Sohn '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.