01/31/2013 12:02 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

McCain's Straight Talk Assessed

How can John McCain keep talking his "straight talk" with a straight face?

With Democrats and the media slobbering over the Arizona Senator's sudden menschiness on immigration reform, it's worth revisiting his record-breaking one millionth appearance on a Sunday talk show. In the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, it wasn't enough for McCain to say on Face The Nation that the administration's handling of the affair was awful, or flawed, or even scandalous. No. It was "worse than Watergate," the 1970s Constitution-threatening debacle that featured multiple major felonies by President Richard Nixon and scores of his top advisors.

Straight? Or straitjacketed?

When asked last Sunday about comprehensive immigration reform on ABC This Week, it was a fine thing that McCain acknowledged his renewed support for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. But how would the man who called his campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express" during his failed presidential bids in 2000 and 2008 explain his double-reverse flip-flop on reform? After all, he was for it (in 2007) before he was against it (2008) before he was for it again (2013).

Given these gyrations, it wouldn't do for McCain to say that his views on immigration have "evolved," a word trotted out by Fox News host Sean Hannity immediately after Mitt "self-deportation" Romney lost 70 percent of the Latino vote in November. Hannity didn't "evolve," of course. His reasoning was primitive: "We gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether." (It would be too revealing for McCain to admit that he's "re-volved," since evolution always goes forward, while, like a hotel lobby door, revolving goes around and around only to end up right where it started.)

In the end, McCain said, "Well, look, I'll give you a little straight talk. Look at the last election. We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote... " Here he stumbles into the actual truth -- that his straight talk up to and including the sentence immediately before the straight talk has become, in a word favored by Watergate prevaricators, "inoperative."

Sometimes, it takes a scorecard. In 2008, many thousands of TV appearances ago, McCain defended his opposition to immigration reform by claiming that his earlier position (the first time he was for it) was a mistake. From Fox News Sunday: "Well, a little straight talk. I got the message, we're going to secure the borders. First."

Lest there be any doubt about his anti-immigrant bona fides, McCain talked tough: "There's two million people who are here who have committed crimes and need to be deported." Two years later, McCain approved the shameless "Complete the danged fence" ad.

McCain's latest immigration follies coincide with Fox's decision to drop Sarah Palin from its roster of bloviators, certifying her fall from political superstar to media afterthought. There is no talk -- straight or otherwise -- that could ever justify McCain's decision to place a vindictive extreme-Right ignoramus a mere twist of fate away from the U.S. presidency.

McCain has frequently heaped praise on Palin and reminded us what a great VP she would have been. Perhaps a President McCain would have made her a player on immigration policy. Her straight talk on the subject was summed up by talk show host Laura Ingraham, who said Palin told her that "She's sick to death of this immigration nonsense in the United States."

The Straight Talk Express sometimes goes completely off the rails. Asked for his views on contraception and HIV prevention, McCain once replied, "Are we on the Straight Talk Express? I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it in the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception..."

McCain' status as a self-proclaimed maverick has roller-coastered along with his so-called straight talk: For years, he bragged about his maverick-hood, then denied he ever called himself a maverick and now apparently wants to be seen as maverick-y once more -- but not too maverick-y.

In the prologue to his 2003 book Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him, McCain, then 64, wrote, "American popular culture admits few senior citizens to its ranks of celebrated nonconformists. We lack the glamorous carelessness of youth and risk becoming parodies of our younger selves."

Earlier in his career, McCain seemed like a man on his way to becoming a rightly celebrated nonconformist. I don't know which is the more depressing prospect -- that John McCain lost his soul along the way or that he never really had one.