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[Note: First an appearance from Lawrence O'Donnell's The Last Word on this topic, below my weekly column at AJE.]
What does he want? Revenge. For what? Being born.
This is the way famous gunslinger Doc Holliday answers equally famous lawman and good friend Wyatt Earp’s inquiry - in their depiction in the movie Tombstone - into why their sworn enemy, Johnny Ringo, is such a misanthrope.
Sadly, this description would be equally accurate in explaining the actions of another Arizona transplant filled with endless rage: Senator John McCain.
I first encountered the seething side of McCain when I was writing my 2008 book, The Real McCain, which was critical of him while pointing out a then-controversial fact, one no longer in dispute among those who lionized him back then: Namely, that the Led Zeppelin-groupie relationship he then enjoyed with many in the media was based on a faulty premise.
John McCain was not a maverick (which he has since admitted after long identifying with the title), but a man driven by a need to fight. To fight for his own redemption, to fight with those who dared disagree with him, and most particularly, to fight with anyone who had delivered him a perceived humiliation of any sort. Think Yosemite Sam on a bender, or Vladimir Putin in those half-naked martial arts pictures.
Sure, McCain was also motivated by the very same political expediency which drives too many politicos, as well as coveting an appearance on the Sunday morning talk circuit, the way an ambitious twenty-something blonde does meeting Edward Pattinson, or marrying Hugh Hefner.
But the driving force for McCain has been pure vitriol and spite. When I first pointed out this inconvenient truth in my book -- that many Republicans, including some willing to go on the record, were sure McCain was motivated by demons and not decency -- I was criticized or dismissed in many quarters. Yet, it was obvious to me back then that his battles with fellow Republicans and Democrats had become personal, crusades for the eternally perturbed Abe Simpson stand-in.
I broke two stories in my book that spoke to McCain’s temperament, first that he had physically assaulted a member of his own party after taunting him (Republican Representative Rick Renzi), and second, that he had called his wife a very not-safe-for-work term of non-endearment. In perhaps an emblematic McCain moment, during a policy meeting with a fellow Republican, McCain “called the guy a ‘sh—head.’ The senator demanded an apology. McCain stood up and said, ‘I apologize, but you’re still a sh—head.’”
There’s a reason the dude was nicknamed “McNasty” in high school.
So when others still saw McCain’s breaking from President Bush on taxes, healthcare, the environment and gun control in the early 2000s as a sign of “independence,” I tried to point out what I had learned: He was just doing it because he hated Bush for beating him in the primaries. And when others saw his loss to then-Senator Barack Obama and thought he’d work with Obama to display his maverickyness once Obama was sworn in, I warned that in all likelihood we’d see McCain once again do his best Judge Elihu Smails impression.
But even I couldn’t have expected how truly ridiculous he’s become. As Deputy Political Director Michael McMurray of NBC News pointed out in a tweet just before Christmas, outside of Afghanistan, “the AZ senator didn't support any major Obama WH policy in '09-'10.” In fact, it has been much worse than that.
Bush’s tax cuts for top earners, immigration reform, a nuclear arms treaty and even a military suicide prevention bill were not worthy of McCain’s support during the last two weeks. Not supporting a bill to prevent military suicides? Really? It’s almost like this particular Scrooge got a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Crazy while napping after an especially large portion of Quaker Oats.
As journalist David Corn recently pointed out, looking at McCain’s increasingly desperate attacks against repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of allowing gays to serve in the military only if they were as vocal as a Buddhist Monk about who they really were, “…McCain practically threw a tantrum on the Senate floor, decrying ‘this bizarro world’ and denouncing senators in favor of repeal…Looking as if steam would shoot out of his ears at any moment, McCain went on to exclaim that ending DADT would endanger ’the survival of our young men and women in the military.’"
Of course, as Corn also wrote, “Not only had McCain flip-flopped, he had become an angry crusader, seemingly full of rage at a policy initiative he once quasi-endorsed…It seemed more personal than policy -- as in he really doesn't fancy seeing a victory for President Obama, the fellow who prevented McCain from becoming BMOC.”
That is really the gist of it, and it’s at the heart of who McCain has been his entire time in Washington, whether most journalists have been willing to see it or not. He’s not a statesman, nor has he ever been. He’s a petulant bomb thrower. He’s Simon Cowell in a suit.
In fact, in a slightly alternative universe, it wouldn’t really be all that hard to imagine McCain standing on a Times Square street corner screaming at passersby that they all deserve to go to hell, or challenging random strangers to a fight to the death using sticks to determine who gets his clay marble collection.
But in this one, he was just elected to another 6-year Senate term. And that tells you a helluva lot about the predicament in which we currently find ourselves as a nation.
[Follow Me On Twitter: @cliffschecter]