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McCain: Evolution from young Navy officer to loose cannon

In the late 1970s I was a reporter in Washington deeply involved in covering national security issues.

That’s when I met and became friendly with John McCain.

He was a Navy lieutenant commander and was assigned as the Navy’s official liaison officer to the United States Senate.

We began having lunch at a fashionable restaurant near the Senate office buildings.

The Navy wanted a new aircraft carrier and President Jimmy Carter, an Annapolis graduate, didn’t think it was necessary. McCain’s assignment was to convince senators that a new carrier was vital to the nation’s security.

McCain was an engaging luncheon companion. He was full of fun, loved ribald jokes, knew everybody and had a reputation as something of a lady’s man.

But his most attractive characteristic was irreverence.

He loved to make sly cracks about the Senate’s many windbags, which, naturally enough, endeared him to reporters like me.

But if anyone had told me then that this particular junior officer in the Navy would one day become a serious contender to be president of the United States, I would have fallen off my bar stool laughing. No way.

Today I’m not laughing.

In making conversation at lunch some time in late l979, as nearly as I can recall, I asked him a question: “John,” I said, “what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to stay in the Navy and become an admiral like your dad and your grandfather?”

To my surprise he responded emphatically: “No,” he said. “As a matter of fact I’m going to resign from the Navy, move to Arizona and run for Congress.”

I was aghast.

“Have you ever lived in Arizona?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

“Well,” I said. “That’s ridiculous. They’ll brand you a carpetbagger and run you out of town.”

How little I knew.

I did not know that his marriage was breaking up, that he had fallen in love with a much younger woman and that the younger woman was immensely rich — easily rich enough to finance a race for Congress.

It had not occurred to me that he had the perfect answer to the carpetbagger question — which, indeed, did arise in his first primary campaign in 1982.

He simply explained that he was a Navy brat and had lived all over the world — but the place he had lived longest was five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. The carpetbagger question never came up again.

The John McCain I remember had about as much qualification to be president of the United States as his choice as a vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has now.

I recall no evidence of a broad conception of the American role in the world or even serious contemplation of great issues facing the country.

So, of course I have been fascinated by his carefully orchestrated evolution from Navy junior officer to presidential contender.

What he has done, very successfully, is to create a brand, a distinctive McCain brand. And the key word is “maverick,” meaning rebel, at times rebelling against his own Republican Party leaders.

Nevertheless, he has always accepted the modern Republican party’s conservative ideology, but has railed against the secret little deals with lobbyists, the long-established pork barrel payoffs, the corruption of money.

McCain, in fact, is a Republican Don Quixote, tilting at Washington’s windmills, but ideologically doctrinaire.

On the record he has been as conservative as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.

We must win the war in Iraq.We must, above all, cut taxes.

And he has a long well-documented record opposing government regulation — at odds with positions he has taken recently as the economy has soured.

McCain has made an art form of posing as a rebel — a maverick — challenging Republican Party leaders while agreeing with them on essentials.

And there are contradictions. Recently he has accused Barack Obama of being a “socialist” — when the Republican administration has partially nationalized banks and he has supported the policy. Isn’t this some kind of socialism?

But it is the Sarah Palin choice that has befuddled me. He had made the idea of “experience” a central element of his campaign and then chose a person as his vice presidential nominee with virtually no national experience.

Yet he is 72 years old and has had four different kinds of cancer. It is by no means clear what his life expectancy might be. A President Palin is not beyond imagination at a time of extraordinary national and international peril.

I’m afraid what we’re seeing here is not just a maverick. We’re seeing a loose cannon.

And fond as I have been of John McCain for all these years, that worries me. In fact, it scares me. James McCartney, a Holmes Beach resident, is a former Washington columnist for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He writes this column for the Bradenton Herald.