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Great American Hypocrites: McCain's Old Packaging

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Myths of Republican Politics. The book is available for online ordering now and will be in bookstores on April 15.

It examines the deceitful, personality-based election tactics the Right uses to build absurd cults of personality around their leaders while demonizing liberal and Democratic candidates. Accompanying that, as always, is the vital role the establishment press plays in disseminating those vapid though powerful themes. This excerpt is from the chapter concerning John McCain's candidacy and how those themes will be deployed by the right-wing/media monster to transform him into a principled, honor-bound American icon.

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The press's veneration of McCain as "a different type of Republican" has echoes of how George Bush was built into an iconic hero. In 2000, we were inundated with claims that Bush was a departure from the hard-core, Gingrichian right-wing Republican. Bush was no mere conservative, but a "compassionate conservative," someone who, exactly like McCain, combined the most admirable virtues of the conservative man with a streak of idiosyncratic independence that rendered him substantially different -- better -- than the standard right-wing Republican.

And exactly like the media's hero worship of McCain now, Bush in 2000 was presented as the sole figure capable of healing our partisan rift. He was a "uniter, not a divider," who venerated solutions above partisan bickering. Bush would reach across the aisle, recruit Democrats to his side, and just as he changed the tenor of politics in Texas, so, too, would he bridge the partisan divide in Washington after eight long years of Clintonian divisiveness.

Here is how then-RNC chairman Jim Nicholson put it during his 2000 Convention speech: "My friends, this is going to be a different kind of convention for a different kind of Republican." Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan mouthed a similar line during the campaign: "Gov. Bush has shown time and time again that he is a different kind of Republican."

Replace "McCain" in 2008 with "Bush" in 2000, and the cliché-ridden script has barely changed. Both then and now, the GOP nominee, despite a virtually unbroken record of standard conservative orthodoxy, is depicted as far too honorable and independent to be considered an ordinary politician, let alone a standard conservative partisan. Both the 2000 Bush and the 2008 McCain were mavericks -- inspiring, honest figures who transcend partisan warfare and piously float far above the muck of traditional politics.

Indeed, the central praise typically heaped by journalists on McCain -- that no matter what one thinks of his views, he always says what he thinks, because he is a man of real conviction -- is exactly the marketing package in which George Bush was wrapped, particularly when he ran for reelection. Just compare McCain's media reputation as a plain-spoken, truth-telling maverick with the crown jewel of George Bush's 2004 GOP Convention acceptance speech:

THE PRESIDENT: In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.

[applause]

The depiction of McCain as a truth-telling, apolitical maverick is just about as accurate as previous similar depictions of Bush were. On virtually every policy issue of significance, McCain's positions -- not his rhetoric but his actual positions -- ultimately transform into those held by the dominant right-wing faction of the Republican Party and, even more so, are identical to the positions that shaped and defined the failed Bush presidency.

In every way that matters, this exotic, independent-minded maverick is nothing more than a carbon copy extension of the Bush worldview, nothing more than a George W. Bush third term. One sees this most clearly in McCain's view of America's role in the world, whereby he channels the central, and indescribably disastrous, Bush mentality almost verbatim.

The central animating principle of the two Bush/Cheney terms has been that Islamic radicalism is not merely a threat to be managed and rationally contained, like all the other threats and risks the United States faces. Rather, it is some sort of transcendent ideological struggle -- a glorious War of Civilizations -- comparable to the great ideological wars of the past. As such, it will engage all of America's military might and the bulk of its resources, as the United States navigates an endless stream of enemies and wars that subordinates all other national priorities and that assumes a paramount role in our political life. That was the central theme of George Bush's presidency, and it is the central theme of John McCain's worldview now.

In articulating a foreign policy at least as bellicose and war-seeking as that which defined the most radical and disastrous aspects of the Bush/Cheney years, McCain has even taken to using language almost identical to that repeatedly used by Bush. As the Boston Globe put it in September 2006:

McCain has nonetheless adopted Bush's sweeping language in defining the war on terrorism: "I think it's clear that this is now part of a titanic struggle between radical Islamic extremism and Western standards and values," McCain said earlier this year.

McCain's unfettered willingness to commit U.S. troops to the war in Iraq; his blithe acceptance of literally decades-long occupation of that country; and his extreme and often even joyous vows to wage war on Iran, if he perceives that they are close to acquiring the ability to develop nuclear weapons, are all part-and-parcel of the same Bush/Cheney emphasis on Middle Eastern wars and U.S. hegemony that has wreaked so much damage on our country over the last seven years. Whatever else one might want to call McCain's worldview, "independent" or "unorthodox" or "a different type of Republicanism" is manifestly not it.

The preposterously simplistic and dangerously Manichean approach common to both Bush/Cheney and McCain -- United States: Good; those who oppose us: Bad; therefore War Is Needed -- manifests in a virtually indistinguishable approach to the world's most complex problems. In the middle of the raging Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, President Bush, unbeknownst to him, was accidentally (and now infamously) recorded while speaking privately to Tony Blair at a dinner of European leaders. Bush, in between bites of food, made clear what the solution was to the war: "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

The Decider issues orders. Everyone complies. And problems are solved for the Good, regardless of complexities, obstacles, or realities.

Consider how identical--almost to the letter--was McCain's prescription in the same year for how to solve raging sectarian tension in Iraq, in remarks addressed to a gathering of GOP donors, as reported by the New York Observer's Jason Horowitz:

In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city's wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.

"One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit,'" said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.

That's the thoughtful, insightful view of the highly experienced, profoundly serious maverick for whom foreign policy is a mastered discipline. Apparently, all Iraq needed for the last five years was some profanity-laced commands issued by the American president to the frightened sectarian simpletons, and harmony would have reigned. This is precisely the same belligerent, narcissistic pretenses that rendered George Bush one of the most despised, destructive, and impotent American leaders in modern history. John McCain seems to believe that all that was needed was just a bit more belligerence and a more imperious tone when dictating to our subjects around the world.

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The mirage-like nature of McCain's alleged convictions can be seen most clearly, and most depressingly, with his public posturing over the issue of torture. Time and again, McCain has made a dramatic showing of standing firm against the use of torture by the United States, only to reveal that his so-called principles are confined to the realm of rhetoric and theater, but never action that follows through on that rhetoric.

In 2005, McCain led the effort in the Senate to pass the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which made the use of torture illegal. While claiming that he had succeeded in passing a categorical ban on torture, however, McCain meekly accepted two White House maneuvers that diluted his legislation to the point of meaningless: (1) the torture ban expressly applied only to the U.S. military, but not to the intelligence community, which was exempt, thus ensuring that the C.I.A.--the principal torture agent for the United States -- could continue to torture legally; and (2) after signing the DTA into law, which passed the Senate by a vote of 90-9, President Bush issued one of his first controversial "signing statements" in which he, in essence, declared that, as president, he had the power to disregard even the limited prohibitions on torture imposed by McCain's law.

McCain never once objected to Bush's open, explicit defiance of his cherished anti-torture legislation, preferring to bask in the media's glory while choosing to ignore the fact that his legislative accomplishment would amount to nothing. Put another way, McCain opted for the political rewards of grandstanding on the issue while knowing that he had accomplished little, if anything, in the way of actually promoting his "principles."

A virtual repeat of that sleight-of-hand occurred in 2006, when McCain first pretended to lead opposition to the Military Commissions Act (MCA), only thereafter to endorse this most radical, torture-enabling legislation, almost single-handedly ensuring its passage. After insisting that compelled adherence to the anti-torture ban of the Geneva Conventions was a nonnegotiable item for him, McCain ultimately blessed the MCA despite the fact that it left it to the president to determine, in his sole discretion, which interrogation methods did or did not comply with the Conventions' provisions.

Thus, once again, McCain created a self-image as a principled torture opponent with one hand, and with the other, ensured a legal framework that would not merely fail to ban, but would actively enable, the president's ability to continue using interrogation methods widely considered to be torture.

Indeed, by casting himself as the Supreme Arbiter of torture morality, McCain's support for this torture-enabling law became Bush and Cheney's most potent instrument for legalizing the very interrogation methods that McCain, for so long, flamboyantly claimed to oppose. Such duplicitous behavior is all the more appalling when one considers that McCain's status as Torture Arbiter was largely grounded in the fact that he himself was tortured while imprisoned, yet he is nonetheless willing to act as compliant dupe, if not active enabler, in legalizing torture by the United States.

The coup de grace in the exposure of McCain as a torture enabler came in February 2008. Senate Democrats -- in the face of their knowledge that McCain's Military Commissions Act allowed the president to continue to use torture techniques, such as waterboarding, and motivated by the refusal of new Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey to declare such practices illegal -- introduced legislation that would outlaw waterboarding by all agencies of the U.S. government, including the C.I.A., rather than merely outlawing its use by the U.S. military, as McCain's 2005 DTA had done.

Faced with the clearest test yet of the authenticity of his claimed anti-torture convictions, McCain, as he sought to placate the far-right base of his party, left no doubt that his anti-torture posturing was pure political theater. While the anti-waterboarding law passed the Senate 51-45, McCain voted against the waterboarding ban, notwithstanding years of dramatic protests over this interrogation technique. Worse, McCain's excuse for his vote -- that there was no need for the law since waterboarding was already illegal -- was a complete falsehood, since discretion for determining the legality of waterboarding continues to rest with the president under the very law, the MCA, that McCain caused to be enacted in 2006.

If one were to attempt to create a caricature of a Great American Hypocrite, one could do no better than describing John McCain's behavior on this torture issue, one of his signature maverick positions. After years of self-serving posturing as the moral leader on torture and after basking endlessly in the media reverence that accompanied it, McCain worked behind the scenes on one measure after the next that enabled and legalized torture. Then, when faced with as clear-cut a vote as could be imagined, he opposed a law that would have outlawed the very methods that the Bush administration had admitted using and that McCain long insisted constituted torture.

* * * * *

If one examines America's presidential elections beginning in 1980 to the present, what one finds is a consistent and unchanging pattern. The Republican Party dresses up its leaders in all sorts of virtuous personality costumes. The establishment press, driven by the vapid dynamics of high school personality complexes, digests and then promotes that iconography. National elections are dominated by personality imagery and smears and are almost completely bereft of consideration of substantive issues. Worst of all, the personality images that dictate our election outcomes are not just petty, but entirely false, grounded in pure myth.

In every one of these critical aspects, John McCain is perfectly illustrative of the same twisted process that has infected our political discourse and converted our national elections into, using the words of John Harris and Mark Halperin, a personality-based freak show. The media depicts McCain as a moderate despite his warmongering extremism. He is heralded as a "new kind of Republican" even though, as a candidate, he is the spitting image of George W. Bush and, on the issues, a more or less reliable supporter of the defining Bush/Cheney policies. He is relentlessly painted as an independent, apolitical maverick, despite a willingness to change positions the minute that doing so is politically expedient. The press refuses to subject him to critical scrutiny because of their great personal affection for him. And he is held out as the honor-bound truth-teller despite both a public and private life that has long ceased to contain any actual acts of honor and truth-telling.

John McCain is a natural candidate, right at home in a political party led by Great American Hypocrites and with a press corps that reveres great American hypocrisy. The press adores him for the same vapid, personality-based reasons it adored George W. Bush. And McCain's media-built and media-sustained reputation as a trans-partisan man of principle and conviction is every bit as genuine as it was in the case of Bush. If the GOP/media machinery manages to elect him, he will undoubtedly produce extremely similar -- if not worse --results.

The preceding is an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald's new book, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Myths of Republican Politics. The book is available now at Amazon. Reprinted by permission of Glenn Greenwald/Crown Publishers. All rights reserved.