Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Leading With McCain




It was a sublime Tuesday back in ‘95 and I was working for the House Transportation Committee (yeah, sounding like the forevermore Hill drone that is my destiny). Suddenly, the committee chairman, Bud Shuster, came to my office to ask me if we’d received any press calls about an obscure Arizona courthouse naming bill, moving through an equally obscure panel, the Public Buildings and Grounds subcommittee, from whence all names for federal buildings came. These are the tedious legislative vehicles where some dusty administrative building next to a strip mall is named for Mitch Blankenship, or Dobie Gillis, or whomever. Sounds innocuous, but building naming bills are a huge deal to constituents and their communities.

More than pleased to chew the fat with True Power on something I actually knew about, I told the Chairman that as a matter of fact, we had received a couple calls, which had surprised me, given that we were dealing with a $218 billion highway bill at the time, and the courthouse was something like twenty bucks to change a ceramic plaque in a dingy hallway. Well, as it turned out, on the Senate side, Arizona Senator John McCain had recently launched into one of his routine floor speech tirades about “pork barrel spending” and had singled out provisions in the highway bill. It was payback time – Politics 101. To paraphrase Danny Noonan in the classic “Caddyshack” scene with D’Nunnzio, “You go after my highway behemoth, you ain’t gettin’ no courthouse.”

An infinitesimal ripple in the great sea of politics, but instructive in looking at McCain. He was deliberately taking a huge public thwack at a House Member and Committee and only when his staff called over about the continuing delays to the Arizona courthouse naming bill did it become clear that everything had its price. When called by an ever-observant media about this clash, I said something like, “Well, fellas, as you know, these naming bills can be heavy lifting, like the ag bill or health care.” Eventually, the courthouse was named, but the subtle point was made by Chairman Shuster.

And like a lot of folks in politics, I’m not untouched by McCain. I recall, with a sting, the disdain McCain had for the work my committee did. I thought and think campaign finance “reform” is a mistake: I come from the slow-witted wing that think there’s not enough money in politics [see my last column--The price of Democracy] So 19 candidates, combined, spend not even a billion dollars in a contest run over a wealthy, geographically vast continent containing 300 million people, where the stakes are leadership of a $13.7 trillion dollar economy and the most powerful nation in the history of mankind?!

Neither am I a big advocate of cutting Member-requested projects or programs. After all, Members are responsible for raising tax dollars; they administer the federal tax system and take plenty of heat for it. So when it comes time to spend some of the money, they should have no say? Instead, we should have faceless, soulless federal and state officials – like your’s truly – direct every cent of your tax dollars?

I’m not smart enough to understand the immigration deal but I know it went against the grain of a substantial number of GOP voters. McCain, as a torture victim, highlighted Abu Ghraib and fought the administration on military tribunals and the prisoner treatment techniques. Since I’ve never been tortured (except for 8 long years in the 1990s), I have no qualms about killers of American soldiers feeling some pain, if it would save Americans.

And so today, McCain stands on the bridge of a once invinvible aircraft carrier, like his beloved Oriskanny, with a few senior campaign aides wandering around below in the smoke on the flight deck. He’s lost his alter ego, Mark Salters – who has as close a relationship with McCain as any staffer has with any Member in town. The campaign has a reported two million in the bank – perhaps none if rumors about debts are true. Just today he lost five campaign press folks. Things look as bad as he was checking in to the Hanoi Hilton.

But.

On the book shelf in the Nellie Den is the book “Faith of My Fathers,” personally signed by the author to my three sons, Devlin, Braden, and Darby, with the note “Anchors Aweigh”. You read that book closely and you’ll never complain about anything in your workaday life ever again. As well, adorning the den are photos of my kids with McCain at a fundraiser.

Call me pretentious, but I consider myself a guy’s guy. And I like leaders, even those that bang me around the head from time to time. Goodness knows I’ve not always hit it off with people who were leading me, whether my parents or on college athletic teams or in the military or in politics. But I know what it takes to be a leader and McCain, if anything, is that.

He may be lose the nomination, and how odd and sad it would be to see this guy, who has been through fire for so long, to drop out and continue his Senate duty, as other guys, against whom I have no ill will, surge ahead to the nomination.

Imagine a September of 2008 when McCain is out on the stump, talking up the GOP candidate, whomever it is, and he’s thinking back: Christ, 40 years ago today I was in Hanoi, hanging from a rope in a dark room, my shoulders pulled out of their sockets, my left arm paralyzed, my right knee crushed, and some commie improbably asking me for the names of the guys in my flight squadron.

What’s worse?