The five best tidbits from Mark Leibovich’s profile of John McCain

December 18, 2013

Few politicians have been given such a broad array of labels (maverick, immigration reformer, immigration hard-liner, dealmaker, to name a few) as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) throughout his career.


(Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency)

In a new profile of the former presidential contender, Mark Leibovich of the New York Times looks at the various McCain monikers (the senator denies that he matched his persona to fit the political vogue du jour), and what the Republican is up to these days.

We encourage you to the read all of "How John McCain Turned His Clichés Into Meaning." But we know you're busy, so below we've plucked out the five best bits.

1. He doesn't really want to talk about Sarah Palin. Leibovich reports that people close to McCain say that some of the things McCain's former running mate  has said and done have ruffled him. But you'll never hear McCain talk like that in public, an arena in which he has defended Palin. What's clear, though, is that when the topic of Palin and 2008 come up, McCain would rather talk about something else. Leibovich writes:

McCain has always been unrestrained in his expressions of remorse. He spent much of the 1990s doing extravagant penance for his role in the Keating Five savings-and-loan mess. This led to the reformed campaign-finance crusader incarnation, which led to his first presidential campaign. After dropping out of the Republican primaries in 2000, he returned to South Carolina and grandly apologized for not calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. “I chose to compromise my principles,” he said at the time. “I broke my promise to always tell the truth.” When it comes to Palin, though, he fidgets slightly in his office chair and meets me with a defiant stare. He reaffirms his allegiance to Palin, saying that she was unfairly attacked in 2008 and that “the liberal-left feminists” felt threatened by her. “Look, it’s been five years,” McCain says. “Can’t we move on?”

2. A Sunday show and Twitter behemoth. McCain holds the record for the most appearances on "Meet The Press" and boasts more Twitter followers than all his colleagues, including a certain rising Republican star from Florida. Leibovich writes:

He is proud to hold the record for most appearances — 69 — in the 66-year history of “Meet the Press” and also to have more Twitter followers than anyone in the Senate (1.85 million badges of his relevance — nearly four times as many as the next Republican colleague, Marco Rubio). You can call this vanity, self-celebration, whatever — if it were a crime, the Capitol would be empty. But in McCain’s case, it’s also proof that he was present and accounted for, which is perhaps no small thing when you spent a good portion of your life expecting to die in a P.O.W. camp. In McCain’s worldview, anonymity equals absence.

3. Graham's Match.com moment. McCain's closest friend in the Senate is Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). In the aftermath of his 2008 presidential loss -- which  was very tough on McCain -- Graham often had to play the role of go-between when it came to McCain's colleagues and longtime friends. Leibovich writes:

For a long time after the election, his colleagues in the Senate treaded lightly around McCain. They described conversations over policy disagreements ending in personal attacks. Other senators would come to Lindsey Graham to ask what was up with McCain. “Give it time,” Graham says he would tell them. He tried to serve as an intermediary between McCain and old friends like John Kerry, with whom McCain became enraged for what he considered an excessive assault against him in a 2008 convention speech after McCain defended Kerry four years earlier from attacks by fellow Vietnam veterans. “I felt like Match.com,” Graham said. “It took a while for John to learn to let go.”

4. Ted Cruz is still a thorn in his side. It's no secret that McCain isn't exactly a fan of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who he famously labeled one of "wacko birds." In the lead-up to the government shutdown showdown, the tension was apparent when McCain mockingly surrendered to Cruz one day in the Capitol. It's clear that Cruz's rhetoric continues to irk McCain. Leibovich writes:

McCain is sick of talking about Cruz. “We have a cordial relationship,” he insists, which in the Google translation of political code is something between abject disgust and minimal tolerance. Cruz is an upstart, whose goal seems to be to position himself to run for president in 2016. He appears indifferent to the traditional markers of Senate experience and prestige — passing bills, leading committees, dutifully winning the respect of colleagues. “You know, it’s a funny thing about Cruz,” McCain says, and then stops himself. “No, actually, it’s not funny. It aggravates me more than anything else” — the way Cruz called his fellow Republicans a bunch of wimps and talks about “how we’ve been around too long.” Cruz is the Senate’s modern-day maverick, it would seem, while McCain has become one of the institution’s fiercest traditionalists.

5. He worries about retirement, but also about growing too old in the Senate. It remains a mystery whether McCain will run for another term. He says is he considering another bid. It's clear that he can see both the cases for and and against it. Leibovich writes:

He fears growing too old in the Senate, as he believes many of his colleagues did — he mentions Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond. But he has also spoken about his father and grandfather, decorated Navy men who both died not long after they retired. “My grandfather actually flew home from the peace-signing on the Missouri and died,” McCain says. “I have seen people age dramatically when they go into retirement.” If he seeks re-election and wins, McCain would be 86 at the end of that term. He is in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee if Republicans win a majority next November.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · December 18, 2013