Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

What Would a Maverick Do?

John McCain, still at war.

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio  

In the end, it’s the middle-aged housewife who gets to him. On a blistering June day north of Phoenix, John McCain, short and sprightly in a baby-blue gingham button-down, has been harangued repeatedly by an antiwar demonstrator during his town-hall meeting. A couple of hours earlier, he’d had to stand red-faced while a transsexual woman made a speech about a nondiscrimination bill in Congress (“I’ll go back and review it again,” he said stiffly).

Then, during an event in a YMCA recreation facility in the suburb of Carefree, he can’t hold it together anymore. A woman takes a paper from her purse and begins reading McCain’s own concession speech from the 2008 election. After he was beaten by Barack Obama, the senator from Arizona promised “to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences.”

“That was your words,” says the woman. “I was very heartened when I heard these words, and my question is: ‘What happened?’ ”

Blinking rapidly, McCain develops an expression like a grenade about to detonate.

“Simple,” he snaps. “This administration has decided to govern from the far left without any consultations or negotiations or any compromises to be made with the other party!”

His supporters applaud, and McCain’s face twitches. “You know how many times I’ve been asked to go over to the White House to negotiate on any issue?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “Zero,” he says with a huff. “Zero.”

McCain ends the exchange with a starkly disingenuous “Thanks very much,” the smirk on his face doing nothing to conceal his annoyance. “Next time,” he says, “please bring another speech.”

It has been a very strange season in the political career of John McCain. The former maverick who once fought his own party on everything from tax cuts to torture, who built a reputation as a prickly independent, now marches in lockstep with his party, from his objection to Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court appointment to his support of a draconian new immigration law in Arizona that would have repulsed him three years ago. When Newsweek asked him whether a maverick would take such positions, he responded that he’d never considered himself a maverick. It all seemed to defy logic.

But did it really? For John McCain, being a maverick always meant following different and contradictory scripts, according to his whim and the political realities of the moment. Long dependent on advisers to harness and manage his political energies, McCain has never resolved an inherent contradiction in his brain trust, between Rick Davis, a veteran lobbyist who helped McCain win the Republican nomination, and Mark Salter, the speechwriter who single-handedly crafted the maverick image of McCain from the early aughts. Both represent distinct parts of McCain’s psyche, the former McCain’s instinctual need to survive and fight, the latter his need for honor and dignity in the Washington snakepit (it was Salter who wrote McCain’s concession speech). And both have served him well. But this year, as McCain has been gripped by fear of political mortality, one of the voices in his head is, increasingly, drowning out the other. In a sense, the campaign he’s running is a continuation of his presidential campaign, the same battle on different ground. And though for the nation the stakes are much lower, for one man—John McCain—they are even higher.

In the spring of 2009, Nevada senator Harry Reid approached John McCain with a message, ostensibly from President Barack Obama.

“If you put an immigration bill in, we’ll get behind it,” Reid told McCain, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

McCain, who’d failed to pass an immigration bill co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy in 2007, and was roundly whipped by his own party for the attempt, was infuriated by the offer. “Me, put a bill in and he’ll get behind it?” McCain asked. “Why doesn’t the president put a bill in and I’ll get behind it?”

In a world where the economy was in turmoil and populist anger was percolating, Obama’s suggestion looked to McCain more like an invitation to political self-immolation, especially in Arizona, where McCain faced a reelection campaign in 2010 with a volatile electorate sliding toward tea-party politics. The exchange stoked lingering feelings over all that had happened in 2008: the economic collapse that stole his thunder, the bickering in his campaign, the press’s abandoning him, how the choice of Sarah Palin threw his judgment into question. He sees Obama less as the leader of all the people than a man who beat him, with a few lucky breaks. “He’s angry at Obama, at former staff, at his family life, at his fellow Americans,” says a veteran Republican strategist who has worked closely with McCain. “He’s angry.”