The Real McCain

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Not since Watergate has the Republican Party suffered such a paucity of charismatic, plausible leadership, which is why we’re being lectured by celebrity noncandidates like Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and John McCain’s blogger-daughter, Meghan McCain. Cheney is obdurately stuck in the past, and Limbaugh is next to hysterical, which leaves Meghan, who once again reared her sunshiny head last week on The Colbert Report.

The official explanation for Meghan’s media popularity—the one she gives herself—is that the GOP lacks a spokesperson for a kinder, gentler version of itself, and what Obama’s victory showed is that it desperately needs one. “It can be a party for a 24-year-old pro-sex woman,” she told Colbert. “We have people that are in this party that are hijacking it and trying to make it even more extreme.”

But there’s another reason for her ubiquity, one that explains why she’s been so aggressively sought after—and such a hit—on every show from The View to Rachel Maddow to Larry King. She is now, effectively, running the campaign that the press hoped her father was going to run. It’s a case of media wish fulfillment.

In the 2000 primary, John McCain was the perfect West Wing Republican, spun directly from the looms of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination. He said whatever popped into his head. When he didn’t know something, he admitted it; when he made a mistake, he fessed up. He picked a fight with Pat Robertson and his ugly brethren, calling them “agents of intolerance” and sending the message that the GOP ought to stop courting bigots. He made himself so available to reporters he once jokingly referred to them as “my base.”

By 2008, though, that love affair was over, because the admirable eccentric—the man who appeared on SNL as a lounge lizard specializing in Barbra Streisand covers—was gone. Instead, McCain stayed numbingly on message. He kowtowed to bigots, giving the commencement address at Liberty University. And he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

But now, along comes Meghan. She’s an open book, as he once was. (She tweets about liking “tattooed, edgy guys.”) She too admits it when she’s out of her depth. (When Maddow asked her about her father’s proposed spending freeze, she responded, “I didn’t even take econ in college.”) On her Daily Beast blog, she picked a fight with Ann Coulter, just as her father picked a fight with evangelicals, calling her “offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time.” She’s come out in favor of gay marriage, which, secretly, is where you suspect her father has been all along, in Goldwater fashion. And most pointedly, she’s describing herself as “pro-sex,” which may earn her blogger scorn but in fact takes direct aim at Palinism. Referencing Bristol’s “abstinence tour” on Colbert, she said, “I think that it is not realistic for this generation.”

Ross Douthat shrewdly pointed out in the Times that if Cheney had run in McCain’s stead, the public would at least have had a chance to reject (or support) his extremism. But McCain wasn’t much of an alternative to either Obama or Cheneyism. Had he hewed closer to his daughter’s message and style—which is, at bottom, his own—he’d probably have done better. Obama still would have won. But the Straight Talk Express would have meant something, and Meghan could have emerged as the face of the party’s ideal future, rather than an emblem of her father’s failed past.

The Real McCain