Until this fall, the only thing that Republican John McCain and Democrat Claire Sargent had in common was the fact that both ran for the United States Senate in 1992.
Now they've both published memoirs.
McCain prevailed as a candidate, and he prevails again as an author. This weekend he nudged up a spot to No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list with Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.
In contrast, I probably boosted Sargent's sales considerably when I purchased my copy of her self-published Journey Proud: Recollections of a Fifties Woman. I bought the book out of curiosity: What had Sargent been up to since the '92 campaign?
Writing this book, as it turns out.
I find it ironic that McCain and Sargent published their memoirs at the same time, since each has had a significant impact on the other's life.
The 1992 campaign was a turning point for both.
McCain was at his most vulnerable -- fresh from a starring role in the Keating Five scandal, in which he and four other senators were investigated and nationally castigated for helping a savings and loan mogul whose business ultimately would go belly up. If McCain had lost that race, his political career likely would have been over; he certainly would not be running for president today.
And thus, there would have been no reason for him to write Faith of My Fathers. McCain's motivation for telling his life story is clear: The book is more campaign ad than literary effort, focusing solely on the senator's military career and the military careers of his father and grandfather. Much of it is devoted to the youngest McCain's five-and-a-half years in Vietnamese prison camps; the book ends before his political career begins.
Even though I had read extensively of McCain's POW experience -- both from his own accounts and memoirs by his fellow POWs -- I was drawn in, as always, by the tale. He may not have had a great reason for writing the book, but there's no denying that it's a good read.
John McCain's impact on Claire Sargent's life is even more obvious. The '92 campaign is the climax of her book, certainly the most exciting thing that ever happened to her. But what I couldn't figure out, until I read the book, is why she would want to tell the story.
After all, she lost.
For a book that took almost eight years to write, Journey Proud is amazingly dull. But it's a must-read for anyone who wants to know why John McCain is where he is today.
The best thing I can say about Sargent's craftsmanship is that I couldn't find any typos. In fairness to the author, she wasn't working with the most thrilling material.
Growing up in the South, Sargent's family is not rich, but certainly not poor. (She manages to drop in a mention of her descent from the Daughters of the American Revolution.) When her father tells her there's only enough money to send her brother to college, Sargent balks. She goes, too, but has to work part-time to help pay the bills.
She moves to New York City after college, and works for an advertising firm. She marries a wealthy man. We don't learn much about Sargent's first marriage -- in fact, we don't even learn her husband's name -- but she does mention that he's a Wall Street investor. She has children. The pinnacle of her high-powered, feminist career comes when she lands a job as a travel agent.
Sargent divorces, then leaves her children in New York to move to Phoenix and marry Henry Sargent, a childhood friend and executive with Arizona Public Service. He leaves his wife for her.
Sargent laments about how boring Phoenix is for this vibrant city girl. She looks for work; she claims she must bring in money, even though her new husband is a high-powered executive. When she can't find a job, she gets a master's degree at the American School of International Management.
She still can't find work that suits her, so Sargent dabbles in politics. She's Terry Goddard's office manager during his first run for Phoenix mayor. She runs for the Legislature in 1984, and loses. She joins some committees, puts up some signs.
And then Sargent decides to challenge John McCain.
It's at that point, more than 200 pages in, that I realized why Sargent wrote this book: She's not done blaming the people she holds responsible for her 1992 loss.
The truth is that Claire Sargent is to blame. She was unqualified, she got in way too late, she ran a lousy race. As you'll recall, 1992 was the Year of the Woman in American politics, and although it helped her defeat another no-name in the primary, it didn't help her in the general. Sargent didn't even get the endorsement of the women's fund-raising groups EMILY's List or the Women's Campaign Fund, although her most memorable line in the campaign was, "I think it's about time we voted for senators with breasts. We've been voting for boobs long enough."
Along with women, Arizona Democrats hit a high point in '92, as well, winning two more seats in Congress.
Sargent didn't ride either wave. To be fair, she was up against a tough opponent. McCain was weak, but the future champion of campaign finance reform was incredibly well-financed. He raised about $3 million to Sargent's $350,000.
But McCain was beatable. Another factor working against him was the fact that Ev Mecham -- the impeached former governor -- was running as an independent, taking votes from McCain the way Ross Perot took votes from George Bush that same year.
If she'd done her homework, Sargent could have made a go of it. Instead, she called herself a big picture candidate and pooh-poohed discussions of economics and foreign policy. She tried to paint McCain as a scamp by tying him to the Navy's raucous Tailhook conventions, but looked like a fool since she had no evidence of wrongdoing on the senator's part. (McCain hadn't attended the infamous 1991 Tailhook event, which resulted in Navy personnel being reprimanded for unprofessional conduct.) And Sargent wasn't even able to get people riled up about the Keating scandal. She might have breasts, but she acted like a boob.
In her book, Sargent refuses to take the blame, reserving a large chunk of it for then-senator Dennis DeConcini.
Some background. In 1992, DeConcini, like McCain, had hit bottom as a member of the Keating Five. DeConcini was trying to decide whether to run again -- his term was up in 1994 -- and he was calling in chits. Once sweet and giving, politics had hardened DeConcini. He was the Arizona Democrats' go-to guy when it came to fund raising, and he felt the people he had helped for years had abandoned him during the Keating scandal.
So when people like Claire Sargent came to him for help in 1992, DeConcini asked them to sign loyalty pledges. It ended up a moot point, since DeConcini didn't run in 1994. (He's now a lobbyist in Washington.) Sargent refused to sign. She wasn't the only one; Karan English, who did win a seat in Congress that year, refused as well.
I don't blame them. It was an ethically dubious thing for DeConcini to ask them to do. But the incident was not the monumental atrocity Sargent describes. Although she refused to sign, DeConcini did help Sargent. He wrote her a check for $1,000 and introduced her around Capitol Hill.
The signature request must have been all the more insulting to the Sargents because Henry Sargent and Dino, Dennis' older brother, were old friends.
As Sargent recalls in her book: "Henry was extremely fond of the senior DeConcinis, but didn't really know Dennis very well because he was three years younger. In those early years he was just 'in the way,' as kid brothers can be, and Henry remembers that Dennis used to run crying to his mother when the older boys kept him awake with their raucous poker games in the DeConcini kitchen."
She devotes page after page to a detailed retelling of Dennis DeConcini's snub during her race. A portion of it is lifted from a guest column Sargent wrote for a local daily shortly after her defeat.
After the piece was published, Gene Karp, then DeConcini's chief of staff, wrote a scathing response, in which he mentions that even after her defeat, Sargent asked DeConcini to help her secure a presidential appointment (she didn't get one) and for tickets to Bill Clinton's inauguration. Karp writes:
"One could ask, if DeConcini was a part of the 'system' that she wanted no part of, why did she want his help in having that 'system' pull out all of the stops to help her.
"As did so many women during the 1992 campaign, Sargent had a golden opportunity to become a viable candidate. Sen. John McCain was vulnerable and the candidacy of Evan Mecham improved her prospects. It was obvious then, as it is now, that Sargent did not have the depth and stature to seize the opportunity presented to her by Arizona's voters. She botched that opportunity and is now trying to blame others for her failure."
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