10/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Maverick? Nothing Could Be Worse

I keep wondering how "maverick" and "President of the United States" can possibly belong in the same sentence. As far as I can tell, they don't. Not unless you want an independent operator sitting in the Oval Office. One who doesn't mind breaking the law--or at least bending the law. One who doesn't like to take advice, who thinks compromise is for wusses.

Yet Sarah Palin and John McCain hope to make "maverick" a major slogan in the White House. Move aside, Washington! They're movin' in. We can assume that when they do, they'll fire the chefs and do the cookin' themselves.

The term "maverick" derives from a Texas hero named Sam Maverick (1803-1870), who moved down to Texas from South Carolina, fought the Mexicans, and bought thousands of acres of land. At first he was against secession, which was a "maverick" position, but then he was for it. (Seceding is, after all, a kick-butt position to hold.) He even became one of three secession commissioners in charge of seizing federal property on behalf of the confederacy. Yet, according to the writers of Wikipedia, he didn't like to keep slaves. And kept them anyway. You can imagine old Sam Maverick saying, "Slaves? They're a headache. But you do what you gotta do."

He sired 10 children, moved around a lot, and then he did the ultimate maverick thing back in his day: he refused to brand his cattle. And that's where the name "maverick" came from. It was all about the cows.

Sam Maverick confused and inconvenienced a whole passel of folks when he moved from the Matagorda Peninsula to the Conquista Ranch, leaving unmarked cows behind. There they were, all those random cows roaming around, but no one dared steal them. Why? Because they belonged to SAM MAVERICK! So the locals branded them for him, which annoyed Sam so much he gave up cattle ranching altogether.

Now we have John McCain running on the "maverick" label. But what does that mean? Is it a "my way or the highway" proposition? He says he wants to reach across the aisle, but that's not what mavericks do. They go their own way. (As McCain said about Sarah Palin, "She's not sitting down for anybody!")

"I am one who marches to the beat of his own drum," McCain also said. Well, that's an admirable position for a philosopher, and it seems quintessentially American. But it's a disastrous position for anyone who wants to govern well.

Governing involves discussion, deliberation, and compromise. And it involves--yes, indeed--reining in the mavericks of the world before they run amok.

Since Republicans love to champion themselves as "the party of Lincoln," it's worthwhile to consider whether Lincoln was a maverick of his day, like old Sam down in Texas. At first glance it seems he was. He freed the slaves, and that took courage. And he suspended habeas corpus--an act some Southerners still won't forgive him for. Look closer, though, and you realize that Lincoln was no maverick. He never swaggered. Instead, he was the consummate listener. He tended to brood over matters. When he didn't free the slaves right away, abolitionists were furious. But he had a broader vision. He knew that if he acted too quickly, the union might never be restored. He had to hold the abolitionists, many of whom might be called mavericks, at bay.

As for suspending habeas corpus, he had no choice. Washington was threatened on all sides. Southern Maryland was filled with secessionists--real mavericks--whose guerilla tactics threatened to bring down the whole country.

For four years, then, Lincoln's biggest challenge was holding the mavericks back, not the least of whom were the maverick southern states.

Yet there were the Republicans in St. Paul, calling on the name of Lincoln, their beloved party founder, and waving their silly posters that said MCCAIN ** MAVERICK. One was even misspelled: MAVERIK.

Apparently, if you're a maverick you can spell any old way you want.