Pedal to the Metal
The Philosophy That Drives Sen. John McCain
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page C01
John McCain drives like he lives: with conviction, impatience and a willingness to cross dividing lines.
"JOHN, A TRUCK!" an aide yells from the back seat.
"I see it, I see it," says McCain, veering right, just missing the truck.
"Joe, you're a little jerk," McCain tells the aide. He means this lovingly.
McCain is the rare senator who drives during the workday. Other senators take a back seat -- the better to read and make calls. McCain reads and calls, too, but it doesn't preclude driving. Or admiring tulips, adjusting his sunglasses or talking with his hands about how the Senate is "literally doing nothing these days" and "is in total gridlock."
And now -- metaphor coming -- McCain himself is stopped in a traffic jam.
"Go, go, go," McCain says, tailgating a Toyota van near the Department of Labor. He slams his palms on the steering wheel while inching his Cadillac CTS toward Capitol Hill.
"Go, go, go," McCain says again, as much a credo as a command. Some people glide through life, some limp, and some -- like McCain -- careen. The Toyota jerks into the right lane, and McCain follows, inches behind.
In his 67 years, John Sidney McCain III has survived three plane crashes, all flights he piloted. He has endured, among other things, 51/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, cancer, an almost career-killing scandal and one of the nastiest primary campaigns in GOP history. "This is all so transient," McCain says. "It could all end tomorrow. My philosophy is just to just go, go like hell. Like Teddy Roosevelt did it. Full-bore."
The Arizona Republican's version of full-bore went national in 2000, when his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination nearly wrecked George W. Bush's juggernaut. McCain's "Straight Talk Express" -- his campaign bus, featuring the candidate's unplugged and impolitic musings -- became a roving political cavalcade. Reporters swooned like schoolgirls, and many haven't stopped. He has become the exemplar of that exotic political virtue, candor.
It hardly mattered that McCain lost in 2000 -- bitterly in the end, and with lasting animosity toward Bush. He somehow has come to embody a now-perished age of bipartisan friendships and philosophies in Washington.
Other colleagues, especially Democrats, came to covet him as a public ally. John Kerry's latest TV ads feature a photo of him and McCain. Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards fell all over themselves during the Democratic primaries to tout their collaborations with their "good friend John McCain." In a speech last year, McCain jokingly accused the candidates of "identity theft."
"I now know why Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and John Kerry are always so anxious to co-sponsor legislation with me," McCain said. "It seems they not only want to work with me, they actually wanted to be me! I feel so violated."
But McCain has been defined as much by the enmity he draws as by the love. "His lifelong personality has won him lifelong friends," said a yearbook remembrance of John "Punk" McCain from Episcopal High School in Alexandria. "But as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with."
Today that group includes many from his own party, some of whom work in the White House and -- it's a decent bet -- one who sleeps there.
"He ought to not be allowed near sharp objects or legislation," says Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
McCain is most awake amid such friction. He often invokes the "crowded hour," a term coined by Teddy Roosevelt, his political hero, to describe TR's attack on Spanish forces at San Juan Heights in Cuba. Roosevelt's "crowded hour" was a compressed time of reckoning, a headlong assault where he proved his skill and bravery on a treacherous battlefield. That, in large part, is how McCain views his time as a public man: A rough-riding joy ride careening from outrage to outrage, charge to charge, wherever the road leads.
McCain is sitting in his Russell Building office, bemoaning many things: the mess in Iraq, pork barrel spending, the power of special interests, Senate inaction, the recurring question of whether he would be Kerry's running mate.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company