In Oro Valley, I ask McCain whether he'll decline future contributions from pro-gun groups like the NRA, considering that it's opposed to even the most modest gun-control law.
I mention that, since 2006, he's on record as accepting more donations from the NRA than any other member of Congress, according to a New York Daily News report.
"I'll take contributions from anybody that is legally in this country," he barks back.
"Anybody?" I say. "What about the Communist Party?"
"I said anyone that's legally here," he says.
"The Communist Party is legally here," I say.
Rolling his eyes, the septuagenarian senator retreats from the room.
An out-of-town reporter familiar with McCain commented to me after the exchange that the senator is much more cordial to journalists in the nation's capital.
Which may explain why he's snowed many of them into believing that he is, in the words of the veep, "an honorable, decent man" with "the courage to vote his conscience."
Savvy reporters know the McCain brand — the principled "maverick" giving people "straight talk" — for what it is: a shtick.
It's an act that's been honed over decades and perpetuated in self-congratulatory autobiographies and inspirational tomes written by McCain with the assistance of former staffer Mark Salter. These include Faith of My Fathers, Character Is Destiny, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life.
New Times managing editor Amy Silverman has detailed in several pieces over the years the tawdry, sometimes sinister truth behind McCain's mask of civic perfection (see "Vintage McCain," Special Reports).
In the mid-'90s, Silverman wrote about how McCain's beer-heiress trophy wife, Cindy, obtained pain killers for her ravenous addiction by enlisting compliant doctors to write prescriptions in the name of employees of her nonprofit American Voluntary Medical Team, which flew medical professionals to war-torn hotspots worldwide.
Part of the story was how the McCain team massaged the media, spinning Cindy McCain's pill-popping machinations and giving her the aura of victimhood. End result: Her lawyer scored her a wrist-slap punishment of having to enter a federal drug-diversion program.
Her attorney also persuaded the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to criminally investigate a former employee at one of her nonprofits, apparently because he knew too much. No charges were filed.
In her 2008 piece "Postmodern John McCain," Silverman described how she helped TV producers for both 60 Minutes and 20/20 research McCain for projected hard-hitting pieces, only to have her work abandoned when the news programs decided that, hey, they liked the maverick.
It's reminiscent of a line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, spoken by a newspaperman character: "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
McCain the legend, who himself was tortured during 51/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has been lauded for opposing torture.
But in 2011, The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen describes McCain the senator's opposition to torture as "spotty," recalling how he voted in 2008 against an amendment offered by Senator Feinstein that "would have banned torture, not just by Defense Department personnel but by interrogators of the Central Intelligence Agency."
About the torture issue, Cohen observes: "[The senator] was against it before he was for it before he was against it."
In the past, McCain has championed campaign-finance reform and opposed soft money in politics — and he's banking on voters remembering that and forgetting his membership in the Keating 5.
These are the five U.S. senators who took lavish contributions from Phoenix savings-and-loan tycoon Charles Keating in the 1980s and 1990s. Later, when Keating was investigated by federal regulators, the Keating 5 allegedly attempted to derail the probe.
McCain was forced to reimburse Keating $13,433 for free flights aboard Keating's corporate aircraft to the S&L kingpin's Bahamas retreat.
But McCain already had received $112,000 in contributions from Keating and his pals. And Cindy McCain and her beer-magnate dad had invested $359,000 in a shopping mall developed by a company connected to Keating.
Add in McCain's onetime opposition to a state and federal Martin Luther King Day, and his consistent warmongering for American military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — even after the Dubya administration found zero weapons of mass destruction in the latter — and you wonder why any media hack ever fell for McCains rhetoric.
Over time, more reporters have figured out the senator. There's even an intriguing sub-genre of books intended to debunk McCain's elusive maverick-ness. Among these are Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, and Cliff Schecter's The Real McCain.