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The Real McCain, A Shape-Shifter And Self-Preservationist: Vanity Fair

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With Sen. John McCain securely closing the door on his presidential ambitions, Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair is out with a profile of the man whose 2008 presidential loss has come to define him as bitter and obstinate.

According to Purdum, however, it wasn't defeat that drove McCain away from the respected position of moderate and unpredictable maverick -- he has long been shrewd and calculating. Driven by an intense drive for self-preservation and an adaptable set of political principles, Purdum says that McCain has always been a brazen, albeit successful, shape-shifter.

Below are a few excerpts from Purdum's piece that help to outline the history of McCain's mercurial and inconsistent political career.

It's quite possible that nothing at all has changed about John McCain, a ruthless and self-centered survivor who endured five and a half years in captivity in North Vietnam, and who once told Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well. It's possible to see McCain's entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, "I've always done whatever's necessary to win." Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

Amid his 2000 political campaign, McCain displayed perhaps his most abrupt flip-flop in order to correct a politically damaging position that he had taken about the flying of the Confederate flag:

McCain infamously shifted his position to suit the political moment, retreating from his declaration that the flag was "a symbol of racism and slavery" to say instead that he understood both sides in the debate. "The beginning of the end for John McCain was the Confederate flag," Torie Clarke says. "That did more harm to him with the broader electorate than anything else."

Purdum says that McCain's decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket in 2008 was indicative of his reckless desire to lean on his "maverick" reputation, which had been lagging at that point in his campaign.

His choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was, of course, the apogee of his hotheaded, cold-blooded self-protectiveness. Denied his own first choice, his friend Joe Lieberman, the Independent-Democrat from Connecticut, he opted instead for the only candidate his advisers thought stood a chance of reinforcing his much-dimmed reputation as a maverick. But in doing so he chose a person so manifestly unqualified for the presidency as to make him look like little more than a hack. "He picked a running mate to prove what an outsider he was," one former adviser said, "and by comparison he wound up looking like the most conventional person around."

With Obama's job approval numbers at their current levels, another term for McCain could well provide the Senator a chance to fan the flames of a 2008 rivalry and continue his politically expedient, ideological march rightwards.

If the voters of Arizona return him to Washington, McCain's immediate future will continue to be defined by one overriding reality: dealing with (or, as the case more often may be, working against) the man who defeated him, Barack Obama. They hold each other in what legislators used to describe with faux courtesy as "minimum high regard."

But Purdum notes that McCain hasn't always been so resentful of young, political rivals, and relays some information showing that his contempt for Obama might now be personal:

In 1993, the newly elected Clinton faced a firestorm of criticism for proposing to speak at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, in light of his own well-chronicled efforts to avoid the draft. McCain wrote the White House and volunteered to go with Clinton if it would help. McCain's distaste for Obama is deeply personal. "I think he thinks he's full of shit," one former McCain aide says of his boss's opinion of the president..."You can tell he can barely fucking stand the fact that he was beaten by Barack Obama," says one senior White House aide who was present. "Throughout the whole meeting, he would not look at the president, even when he was talking to him."

For the entire Vanity Fair piece, including Purdum's frightening speculation on the path the country might have taken if there had been a President John McCain for the past two years, click here.

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