Some of your constituents think you sold them out.
--Alabama Senator Howell Heflin to John McCain
That terrible judgment, made at the opening of the Senate Ethics Committee hearings, sticks in my mind.
I will always remember the guilty grimace on John McCain's face. He sat there uncomfortably with the other defendants. Each senator was accompanied by a portly, expensively dressed lawyer being paid $400 an hour to defend him.
It was clear to me then that McCain sold out his constituents for money. Nothing that took place in those hearings or since has changed my mind.
I also remember a day during the hearings when McCain rushed to make a television appearance on C-SPAN. As you must have noticed, it is an automatic response of McCain's to rush toward any television camera within 100 yards. The man calling in to the television show announced that he was from Nashville, Tennessee. McCain grinned into the camera. He couldn't wait to win the man over to his side.
But McCain was wrong this time.
The man said:
"I find your smugness absolutely appalling. Keating played you for a puppet."
McCain blinked. Earlier in the day, he had pronounced himself above reproach. McCain tried to smile away his anger and sense of guilt.
McCain used a technique that has become his habitual reply to critics. He thanked the caller in a voice dripping with sarcasm. But this only made the caller more incensed. He shouted at McCain:
"Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame! Shame!"
The next caller said he was from Murphysboro, Illinois.
"You can smile there on TV," the man said, "but Senator Barry Goldwater told me about you a long time ago. He said that you came to Arizona only for the money. I know Charles Keating. I know you. And incidentally, I feel sorry for you."
McCain thinks everyone has forgotten about his great friendship with Charlie Keating. Those were the days when Keating was stealing it by the barrel and tossing it like confetti to venal politicians like McCain. But nobody has forgotten. And this could cost McCain his job. Here's why:
An old friend stopped me on the street the other day.
"You know what I did?" he said. He seemed poised to make a terrible confession.
I shook my head. I had no idea what to expect.
"I signed one of those damned petitions to get Evan Mecham's name on the ballot," he said. "I just didn't want McCain to get away with what he did with Charlie Keating."
Having gotten this off his chest, my friend stood there smiling. He seemed pleased. At the same time, it was clear he was proud to have done the right thing.
Somehow, I wasn't surprised that he or anyone else had signed petitions to put the former governor's name into the race for the U.S. Senate against McCain. The resentment against McCain, our incumbent senator, is almost palpable wherever you go.
I personally know at least a dozen voters who signed Mecham's petition only for the purpose of helping to send McCain down to defeat. Many of them were women who are supporting Claire Sargent and who hope Mecham will take votes away from McCain.
McCain is a favorite only with the oligarchs in the country clubs, the counting houses and the banking houses, and in the inner sanctums of KTAR Radio and the cubicles of the editorial writers at the Arizona Republic.
The support of talk-show Host Pat McMahon and his literary equivalent, William P. Cheshire at the Republic, does not constitute a landslide. To be a favorite with this limited segment of society gets you a measure of fulsome praise. It does not, however, give you enough votes to put you back in the Senate for another six years.
McCain's support among ordinary voters is about a quarter of an inch deep. They see McCain as an arrogant, pushy Washington, D.C., Beltway phony. They understand--without the ugly details being replayed for them--how McCain carpetbagged his way to success in Arizona. That's why McCain's biggest mistake during this campaign is to continue to spend obscene amounts of money on television and radio advertising.
Constant appearances by McCain, posing as a knight in shining armor on local television, merely serve to remind voters that he is a wealthy bureaucrat who is an enemy to their own aspirations.
Where is Claire Sargent, they wonder? Where is Evan Mecham? Every time they watch a McCain advertisement, they are getting a subliminal message that McCain's opponents are not on television because all the wealthy and the powerful interests are backing McCain.
The memories flood over them.
There's Keating giving McCain free rides on Keating's jet airplanes. There's McCain in Keating's beach house, enjoying another free vacation. There's even the memory of the sweetheart shopping-center deal Keating set up for McCain's wife.
And then they remember that the biggest contributors to McCain were convicted felons like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky and fat cats like Donald Trump, as well as all those powerful political action committees.
The names of McCain and Keating are seared into everyone's collective memory. Keating is in a prison cell and McCain now acts like they never knew each other. But we remember. By his own greed, McCain has disqualified himself from further public service.
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McCain treats Sargent with utter disdain. He says publicly that she doesn't know enough about Washington to engage him in a meaningful debate.
McCain is so cynical and arrogant that he doesn't understand that it is precisely Sargent's innocence that makes her attractive to voters.
And McCain is unaware that his own moral shortcomings become our biggest reason for a willingness to believe that Mecham was railroaded out of office by a gang of crooks.
We believe the polls at our own peril. Perhaps the right thing will happen after all. Maybe John McCain will get booted out of office.