The Selling of John McCain's Soul

A writer of fiction most certainly would enjoy a rare literary feast in sitting down to write a novel based on the rise and fall of Senator John McCain.

McCain's life story has all the elements required for the creation of a complex, even memorable, fictional character. His life is one that has been packed with the critical turns required to keep a novel reader flipping the pages.

There have been so many twists of fortune in McCain's career. Certainly, he has been up and down more than most of the successfully fictionalized political characters of the past.

Think back on some of the most renowned works of fiction dealing with political subjects.

There was Richard Condon's frightening story of a returned prisoner of war in Korea that became The Manchurian Candidate. There was also Condon's Winter Kills, about the assassination of a man much like John F. Kennedy.

Tom Wicker's Facing the Lions is a dead-center depiction of a battle between a journalist and a senator who wants to become president. There is also Oakley Hall's story of a political figure who sells his soul to gain office in the almost forgotten The Corpus of Joe Bailey.

Most recently there has been Ward Just's vivid creation of the world of backbiting politics in Jake Gance.

Having cited all these, I must admit to a belief that McCain's life provides a more complex literary model than all of the others. As a political presence, McCain has been like an iceberg. Nine-tenths of his actions and motives have always been held beneath the surface, concealed from public view.

As a result, even though McCain has been in the headlines for almost a decade, we still haven't gotten to know the real John McCain. Is he a hero? Or has he always been caught up in his own self-advancement? Has he been totally corrupted by this association with Charles Keating? Or was it the insidious McCain who corrupted Keating?

On the surface, he's seems so readily approachable and open to journalists, television people and radio talk show hosts. And yet, after his statements are weighed, it always becomes clear McCain has never actually revealed much about himself.

Any novel about McCain would begin during his days as an undergraduate at Annapolis. Clearly, the fact that his father and grandfather were navy admirals played a big part in his being accepted at that military institution. But how do you account for the fact that his grades were so abysmal?

What kind of life did McCain lead as a student? Who were his friends? Where are they now? And, once again, why did McCain finish at the bottom of his class?

What about his first marriage? A novelist would want to know what caused that to break up, and what happened to the children.

A large chunk of the McCain story would take place in the North Vietnam prison camp where he was held for years. That section would end with the climactic scene in which Mc Cain limped off the plane and into the view of national television after finally being released by his captors.

There would be an early Washington section following his release in which McCain's role as naval liaison to Congress would be closely examined.

There could be some real surprises here. For example, what was the foundation for his close friendship with Senator John Tower of Texas, even then known as a heavy drinker and womanizer?

The reader would learn about the inside of Washington politics as McCain and the politically powerful Tower studied states where congressional openings were coming up. Why did McCain finally decide to move to Arizona rather than Florida?

There is the potential for some great scenes here.

First of all, there would be an account of the meeting with incumbent Congressman John Rhodes, whose resignation would provide McCain with the necessary opening. How would Rhodes take it when he was told that he must allow McCain to succeed him rather than his own son?

Later, there would be still another important meeting with Barry Goldwater, the old Republican war-horse. Despite the fact that Goldwater was the laziest member of the Senate, he had the power to put a stop to McCain anytime he wished.

There were so many things that had to come together to make it possible for an outsider like McCain to run for political office in Arizona.

Certainly, there was always more to McCain's courtship of the pretty young brewery heiress, Cindy Hensley, than love at first sight.

And what about his friendship with Duke Tully, the Arizona Republic publisher? Tully's backing finally made it possible for McCain to win his first election.

The last section of this roman à clef would tell the full story of McCain's relationship with Charles Keating. There are so many facets to this partnership that might be explored.

The biggest problem for a novel writer at this point would be to prevent the dynamic Keating character from taking over the entire novel.

It isn't difficult to imagine McCain's excitement when he realizes that the wealthy Keating has decided to back McCain with all the money he needs.

With Keating solidly behind him, McCain imagines he might even become president of the United States.

It is at this point that things begin to spin out of hand. Keating is so rich and powerful that he takes command, not only of McCain but also of the state's senior senator, Dennis DeConcini.

McCain's wife, Cindy, and his father-in-law invest $350,000 in a Fountain Hills shopping-center project with Keating. McCain is certain no one will ever take the trouble to find out.

He believes he has the perfect answer to any criticism. There is a prenuptial agreement. The money is his wife's to do with what she wants. He misses one point. It would be one thing to buy a fur coat without consulting your husband. It is something else entirely to invest nearly a half million dollars.

There is a dramatic meeting with Keating who tells McCain that all he has to do is keep his mouth shut and no one will ever be the wiser.

Keating tells McCain there is nothing to fear and the ambitious senator is convinced.

Until this point, the Arizona media had been repelled by Keating's repeated threats to sue any and all publications that dared to print unfavorable stories.

Before he realizes, McCain is in too deep with Keating. He has been inexorably drawn into a lavish lifestyle consisting of free rides on Keating's personal jet planes and vacations at Keating's opulent home in the Bahamas.

And by this time, McCain has accepted $112,000 from Keating in campaign donations.

McCain has crossed over the line.

And when the savings-and-loan scandal strikes, McCain and four other senators are caught in the storm.

The novel's final chapters will revolve around an investigation of McCain, DeConcini, Alan Cranston, Donald Riegle, and John Glenn, who helped Keating by creating pressure on bank regulators.

In the novel based on these events, McCain might save his soul by making a dramatic public confession. He would stand before a packed gallery and admit that he had lost his moral focus.

And then McCain would walk proudly out of the hearing room with his wife on his arm. His political career would be over but his honor would be restored.

In real life, the McCain story may end on a more cynical note. He will sell out Keating, just as he tossed aside Tully, who was once so close he became godfather to one of McCain's children.

We will remember John McCain as a self-serving egoist who skulked through the corridors of power. We will never forget the desperate man selling his soul in an effort to make the Senate Ethics Committee believe he had done no wrong.

The final chapter of McCain's real political life backs up a terrible suspicion many have held.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Tom Fitzpatrick

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