Why America Still Listens to McCain

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Tracking the latest developments in the controversy over what Susan Rice said about the September 11 Benghazi attacks has devolved into an exercise in tracking every single word John McCain says — and it's getting more than a little tiresome, and not even the least bit maverick. On Tuesday afternoon, after a closed-door meeting with Rice that got his friends in the Senate 'disturbed' as well, McCain said he was "significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got, and some that we didn’t get." Rice then released a statement saying she was "incorrect" in saying there was a protest in Benghazi. We now await word of whether McCain was satisfied with Rice saying she was wrong, as he'd demanded. (Update: He is not satisfied.) Why? 

McCain's press conferences will never be truly newsworthy, because they will never truly signal how Republican senators might vote if Rice is appointed Secretary of State. (They might not have the votes anyway.) The Arizona senator has never been known as a politician who can bring together the entire Republican caucus — he earned praise that he was a "maverick" by saying things that annoyed his own party. And in his opposition to Rice's still-hypothetical nomination to be Secretary of State, McCain hasn't even been able to bring along Sen. Joe Lieberman. "I respectfully separate from my two amigos on this one," Lieberman said earlier this month. McCain has pulled in New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte as a substitute, and she echoed his comments in their press conference Tuesday. While it helps to have a female senator attack a female official when the opposing party is calling you sexist, the Tea Party-backed Ayotte has not yet cultivated the bipartisan-making-tough-choices gravitas that McCain, Graham, and Lieberman enjoy.

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But the press conferences still aren't that newsworthy, because McCain isn't even a celebrity politician anymore, and occasionally not even a responsible one — he held a press conference on Benghazi during a classified hearing... on Benghazi. No, the news is supposed to be about what McCain says about Rice, and whether he'll block President Obama's cabinet appointments. And there have been three phases to McCain/Rice: his total opposition to her comments, his "softening" and flirtation with a truce if his questions were answered, and now his rejection of those answers in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. Does that mean Benghazi is still a "thing" until McCain says his questions are answered, at which point it will be a "thing" no longer? Can't the thing just go away?

The thing is, McCain's comments manage to remain more newsworthy than those of any other senator: his is a lingering halo of bipartisanship and honor and purity of motives, a reputation that, like David Petraeus's, was so hyped it's hard to imagine it was possible for a living human to truly earn it. A decade ago, McCain's every word was newsworthy, because he was usually attacking his own party on an issue that had deep moral resonance and on which he had some expertise — campaign finance reform, immigration, torture. Benghazi is the exact opposite, a very partisan spat over a single firefight that's meant to deny President Obama one cabinet appointment. As Slate's Dave Weigel pointed out, McCain opposed that kind of point-scoring in 2004, when John Kerry opposed Condoleezza Rice's nomination to Secretary of State because of what she'd said about weapons of mass destruction. He used his solemn reputation to demand his colleagues grow up: "I wonder why we are starting this new Congress with a protracted debate about a foregone conclusion. I can only conclude that we are doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness over the outcome of the election."

You might remember how McCain was the subject of many glowing profiles presenting him as a man of honor and redemption. But maybe you don't remember how over the top they were. Take Michael Lewis's 1996 story from The New Republic, which he told on This American Life, which told the tale of McCain magnanimously accepting the apology of a 1960s student protester named David Ifshin whose speeches were piped into McCain's prison cell in Hanoi, where he was tortured. Except there's a twist: When McCain finds out Lewis is going to interview Ifshin and extract a heartwarming anecdote, McCain calls and pleads with Lewis to be careful. What if he hurt Ifshin's family? ("I'd forgive you, but I wouldn't forgive myself," McCain tells Lewis.) And then there's another twist: Ifshin remembers it differently. McCain preempted Ifshin's apology with his own apology. "As I listen to him, I realize that this is the reverse of the usual Washington investigation, in which the reporter visits each interested party to collect the dirt on the adversary," Lewis says. "Here is a case where each is needed to explain the other's nobility of spirit."

McCain seems to be giving up his role as some kind of moral oracle. So why do we still have to treat him like one?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.