By Steven Levingston
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B06
DIRTY SEXY POLITICS
By Meghan McCain
Hyperion. 194 pp. $23.99
First, let's get past the risqué cover of Meghan McCain's campaign memoir, "Dirty Sexy Politics." In front and back photos, the daughter of Sen. John McCain is, shall we say, fully engaged with an elephant. On the book's front, the blue-jeaned, barefoot author sits on the pachyderm's trunk as it curls up and locks around her thighs. The photo raises the question: Who's in charge here? That brute symbol of the Republican Party or the free-thinking college grad who brought scandal to her father's 2008 presidential campaign? Flip the book over and you get your answer. On the back, daughter McCain is free of the trunk; now she's dressed in tight black pants and knee-high boots, looking like a seductive animal tamer who has just had the wrestle of her life. The elephant, for his part, is slumped on his belly, staring straight ahead dazed and defeated. Feisty young McCain, apparently, has taught the party a thing or two.
And that's just the way she'd like it. Her memoir is as much a scathing critique of the Republican Party as it is a passionate tale of life on the campaign trail. McCain takes repeated jabs at the intolerant ethos of today's Republicans. She rails at feeling left out: The party, she says, has been hijacked by the right wing and has rejected -- to its detriment -- the moderate politics that she and millions of other young conservatives espouse. While she admires the ideas of Barry Goldwater and has her father's Republican pedigree, she feels she is never viewed as conservative enough by the far-right standards of angry radio and TV hosts. Complicating her acceptance among those who control the "groupthink," as she calls it, is that she loves to wear over-the-top clothes, drops the F-bomb with ease and has gay friends. Not only that, but she is both "passionately pro-life" and "passionately pro-contraception," and chastises conservatives for their narrowness of vision on the issue. "They go on and on about how evil and wrong abortion is, but don't like to talk about how easy it is to not get pregnant."
McCain leaped aboard her father's Pirate Ship, as the campaign was called, in July 2007, shortly before her 23rd birthday, after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in art history. She began blogging -- to the consternation of some campaign heavies -- and made some regrettable statements in a GQ article, such as her quips that Obama was "sexy" and that she was a fan of the burlesque stripper Dita Von Teese. She was relegated to a back bus on the campaign trail, the prospect of her introducing her mother at the Republican National Convention vanished, and even the Secret Service kept mistaking her for another blonde. All the tears she spilled and the slights she felt pour out here in this youthful narrative -- made all the more enjoyable by its healthy sense of humor.
When McCain met Sarah Palin, she "felt shaken and troubled," worrying like many others that the Alaska governor was not prepared for the national stage. As a running mate she preferred Sen. Joe Lieberman, "a brilliant politician . . . one of the kindest, friendliest, and funniest people I have ever met," and feared the slot would go to Mitt Romney, "the politician I most loved to watch and ridicule." She blames the choice of Palin on a secret cabal of campaign advisers and particularly excoriates Steve Schmidt, whom she describes as "our bullying campaign manager."
Once the Palin clan climbed aboard, the Pirate Ship started to sink. "From the minute Sarah arrived," McCain writes, "the campaign began splitting apart. And rather than joining us, and our campaign, she seemed only to begin her own." Palin's arrival -- this "sudden, freakishly huge, full-fledged phenomenon" -- was jarring for the potential first daughter, who found herself shoved into the background. Soon, she was misbehaving, becoming a distraction, and finally was effectively banished from the campaign. "The irony wasn't lost on me," she recalls. "Here I'd been ruminating about how the Palins weren't 'ready for prime time' when, in fact, it was me all along."
McCain writes movingly of election day, when her father pulled the family into a huddle and delivered the bad news that was already evident in the campaign's own polls. She couldn't believe it was over -- at 5 p.m. "Election nights are supposed to go on and on. . . . The sun wasn't even down. My dad hadn't even eaten dinner." She ended the campaign feeling alienated from her party and worried about its domination by the Christian right. Calling herself a passionate Christian, McCain fears the party will shrink and possibly become irrelevant if it narrows its agenda to "accommodate only one moral code." On the night of her father's defeat, she felt gloomy enough to imagine the worst for the party. "That night," she writes, "I was standing at its funeral and saying good-bye."
Steven Levingston is nonfiction books editor of The Washington Post and edits the blog Political Bookworm.