The Pampered Politician

Arizona Senator John McCain is ready for a presidential run — if the national press corps has anything to say about it

Reached at his Washington office, and asked if he was taken aback by Lewis' kind coverage of McCain, Starobin is, surprisingly, defensive of both men.

"You just writing about how the Washington media is in bed with John McCain? Worships the ground he walks on?" he asks.

Starobin maintains that Lewis remains a cynic, but was obviously impressed by McCain's "compelling story."

McCain is honest, a likable person who doesn't "take a lot of bullshit from his colleagues," and that appeals to journalists, Starobin says.

"Michael Lewis is okay. It's a bit of a shtick with him. He's probably not as cynical as he says he is," he adds. "I wouldn't say he's not a serious journalist, but I would say he's marketing a certain style and approach and take on politics that tends to be pretty unvarying."

Lewis says his coverage is not unvarying; when asked about his coverage of McCain, he immediately points to a number of other campaign players--Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Ralph Nader--whom he describes favorably.

But none as favorably as McCain, whom Lewis readily describes as his "beacon."

When Lewis met McCain last March in South Carolina, he says, "I kind of vaguely knew who he was. I think I thought of him as one of the Keating Five. And I just found him to be this really refreshing exception to the usual political personality. I mean, he was straight. Everything he said checked out."

Lewis has never heard of J. Brian Smith, McCain's campaign consultant. (Smith says he's not on the payroll presently, but has been tapped to work on McCain's 1998 Senate race.)

"His press person will just send me whatever I want, including all the nasty stuff about him. It's like having a research assistant," says a shockingly ingenuous Lewis.

Yes, Lewis admits, "there is a cynical take on it all. The cynical take is, 'Well, look, this is a very good way to get ahead. Honesty is a clever and cynical tactic.' But I don't quite--to me, that's the way to despair. If you start saying honesty is cynical, what's left?"

How could Lewis say anything else, given this New Republic passage, from Election Day:

Until now in the campaign Dole usually has been surrounded by bigwigs; everywhere he goes he is accompanied by governors and senators. But today, the final day of the campaign, the day Dole will discover that he never will be president, the governors and the senators seem to have vanished. There is no one but his wife and daughter at his side in the church. Then I notice John McCain, standing off to one side in aviator sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low over his brow. A few weeks ago in Phoenix I watched McCain rearrange his schedule over the protest of his staff so that he could be with Dole on Election Day. The staffers thought the senator should be back in Arizona celebrating probable victory with Republican freshman J.D. Hayworth. McCain thought he should be on the road coping with probable defeat with Dole. "I would think the time he might need a friend would be that night," he said at the time. And so here he is, in Russell, Kansas, lecturing a reporter who would rather hear about the despair in the front of the plane than Bob Dole's place in American history. "I predict to you," I can hear him saying, "that Bob Dole's picture, win or lose, will one day hang in the lobby of the U.S. Senate."

Usually I am not allowed to say in print what I think about McCain because I tend to go on a bit. But perhaps today I will be granted an exception. He is unlike most people who do what he does for a living in his taste for a losing or unpopular cause. Obviously this benefits him at some level; obviously he cannot push his courage too far; nevertheless, there is something extraordinary about the way he seeks out trouble to avoid violating his sense of who he must be. And it never fails to allay somewhat my general misgivings about democracy as currently practiced.

Lewis has recently finished a long piece about McCain, which is scheduled to appear in the New York Times Magazineat the end of this month.

National Journal's Paul Starobin doesn't have a lot of regard for the thesis of the article you are now reading.

Aah, he says, "the postmodern take on John McCain."

McCain is no Boy Scout, Starobin concedes. But "is he a crook and a sleaze ball and a scum bucket? I don't think so."

Of course, Starobin works for a publication that just last month celebrated McCain's "independent spirit and taste for confrontation" in a cover story.

In any event, Starobin advises, don't read too much into McCain's meteoric rise in the national press. "There's also nothing going on here [in Washington]. . . . You know, this budget thing, but, on the whole, it's not a great season for political coverage, so maybe McCain is just the flavor of the month and two months from now it'll be a different flavor."

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