Flip-Flopping John McCain Is No Political Profile in Courage

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"They have set fires because they want to signal to others," McCain said at the time. "They have set fires to keep warm, and they have set fires to divert law enforcement agents . . . from them."

But a day later, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman contradicted McCain, telling CNN there was "no evidence I'm aware of" to back up the contention.

Hispanic leaders denounced McCain, demanding an apology. None came.

It turned out that two Anglo cousins from southern Arizona sparked the Wallow blaze. They hadn't put out their campfire properly. The result was that 538,000 acres were incinerated in Arizona and New Mexico.

I ask McCain whether he regrets his statement.

"I regret the racist allegations that were made to me, particularly in light of a [U.S. Government Accountability Office] study that said some of these fires were set by people who came to this country illegally," he says, peeved. "They should apologize to me!"

In a review released months later, done in part at McCain's behest, the GAO found 30 fire investigations between 2006 and 2010 that "identified illegal border crossers as a suspected source of ignition."

Note the word "suspected."

Thing is, only 77 out of the 2,126 human-set wildfires during that period were even investigated.

Which is why the GAO had to conclude that "the total number of fires ignited by illegal border crossers on federal lands in the Arizona border region is not fully known."

McCain's statements as he toured the Wallow Fire were unnecessary and inflammatory, scapegoating further an already scapegoated community.

When I stress that those responsible for Wallow were Anglo, McCain orders me not to interrupt him again.

"I see you're with New Times," he sneers, looking at my press badge.

"Yeah," I say, "Nice to meet you."

"Well, it's not nice to meet you!" he snaps.

Obviously, a nerve has been struck. I observe that he'd gone hard right in 2010 to knock off J.D. Hayworth.

"You're entitled to your opinion," McCain says.

What was worse about the illegals-cause-forest-fires flub was that McCain already had won re-election a couple of months earlier. It was as though the dial in his head still was locked on pandering to the Tea Party.

But McCain's hard-right migration didn't start with his re-election effort in 2010, even if it reached its zenith then.

During the 2007-08 fight for the GOP nomination for president, McCain's rivals — including future Republican nominee Mitt Romney — hammered his supporting "amnesty" in the form of an '07 federal immigration bill (killed because of pressure from the far right).

McCain's rhetoric often sounded pro-immigration, with talk of how immigrants enrich America and how the undocumented are "all God's children." But the drubbing forced a shift, with McCain declaring in one debate, "I commit to securing the borders first."

That mantra of "secure the border first" (before considering immigration reform) became McCain's position in 2010, as it would for Jeff Flake during his run for the U.S. Senate last year.

In the 2013 immigration bill, a plan to secure the border must be in place six months after the bill becomes law. Only after that can the 11 million undocumented apply for "registered provisional immigrant" status, a precursor to a green card, and citizenship long after that.

Thus, as the bill now stands, the process of securing the border and legalizing the undocumented are somewhat parallel, a significant change from "secure the border first."

But in 2010, McCain still was trying to appeal — with the help of Sheriff Babeu — to the very people he would blast less than a year later as "Tea Party Hobbits."

At an October 2010 Tea Party rally in Tucson, McCain (looking dorky in a blazer and baseball cap) stood next to Babeu and basked in the sheriff's effusive praise of the senator's hawkish border stance.

When it was McCain's turn to speak, he thanked teabaggers repeatedly for their patriotism.

"You're not just changing Arizona, you're changing America," he told the cheering crowd.

He explained that the GOP wasn't the party of "no" but of "hell no" — meaning, to teabaggers, that Republicans didn't support a pathway to citizenship, much less amnesty.

"My friends," he said, "our obligation to the people of this country and the people of Arizona is to get our borders secure first. We can do that."

McCain then took aim at Democratic U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva and then-Democratic Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, leading the Tea Partiers in chants of "So long, Raul!" and "Goodbye, Gabby!" — the latter illustrated by a placard emblazoned with the phrase and a shoe in the act of kicking.

A few months later, Giffords was bleeding from a bullet to the head, fired by a crazed lunatic wielding a Glock 19 with a 33-round magazine. Six were wounded fatally in the attack, including U.S. District Judge John Roll. Thirteen, including Giffords, were injured.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons