photo by Yoshinori Abe

January 21, 2000


The media’s well-known love affair with presidential aspirant John McCain is almost embarrassing to behold; it is like those couples that are all over each other in public, and make you want to say: "Could you take that somewhere else – perhaps someplace more private?" Salon’s Jake Tapper is positively homoerotic in his breathless ardor:

"First, a confession: Sen. John McCain almost seduced me (professionally). I was this close to becoming one of those reporters who swoon whenever the Republican senator from Arizona flashes his winning smile and demonstrates his passion and boyish enthusiasm. Just another journalist infatuated with the prisoner of war turned politician."


Tapper is typical, as is so often the case: the media has collectively fallen in love with John McCain, and their reporting should be read as one would read love letters – for that is the style in which it is usually written. But when did this great romance begin, and what is it based on? What, in short, do these moonstruck lovers have in common? Most conservative commentators sourly remark that the Arizona Senator’s popularity with the liberal media stems from his image as the champion of "campaign finance reform," and the smokers among us (see photo above) suspect that his fanatical anti-tobacco stance might have something to do with it – if there’s one thing our liberal elites hate, it’s smoking and smokers. But if this is enough to induce orgasm in an entire profession, then American journalists are more whorish than even I imagined. No, it must be something else, something sexier, and darker . . .


The "McCain moment" occurred at the height of the Kosovo war, when the drumbeat for unleashing ground troops was loudest and McCain inundated the airwaves with his endlessly repeated mantra of mind-numbing mendacity: "We’re in it, and we’ve gotta win it!" Perhaps we can pinpoint the day of his debut as the media’s darling: on April 5, 1999, a Monday, news junkies woke up to McCain’s bellowing, on Fox News’ Crier Report, that we ought to bomb Belgrade into rubble and call in the Marines. Then on to Larry King (CNN), where he likened the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo to the Holocaust, two programs on MSNBC, two on CNBC, and a nice little chat with Charlie Rose on PBS. He topped it off with Ted Koppel, and was up bright and early to greet the day with Don Imus. The Washington Post quoted one Republican strategist who remarked admiringly: "It’s all McCain, all the time."


Yes, love can be an all-consuming thing, and there is every indication that the Senator was (and is) just as smitten as his gaggle of media groupies. As the Post reported:

"’We've turned down far more than we've accepted,’ McCain said somewhat sheepishly in a telephone interview from the Atlanta airport yesterday morning. ‘Five times as much.’ He paused, realizing he had overstated. ‘Well, I don't know the proportion, but it's dramatically more that we've turned down.’"


The Kosovo war catapulted McCain into the top ranks of the Republican contenders. This in spite of the fact that a ground war in the Balkans was not all that appealing to American voters, especially Republicans (they overwhelmingly opposed it), or because McCain was especially popular among the Republican grassroots (he was not that well-known). Before the war, he was virtually unknown to the general public outside Arizona; but our war-happy media soon made him a star with a national following. For this was their war, one waged as much by CNN as by NATO, and they were thrilled with McCain's blustering rhetoric. Reporting McCain's call for ground troops in Kosovo, CBS News reporter Rita Braverman gushed: "This is key. He acknowledged: 'I fully appreciate this means young Americans may die, and I fully appreciate I take some responsibility for that.' McCain's own military service and his time in that POW camp gives him, perhaps, more authority to speak than any of the other power players on this subject. Americans may not agree with him, but at least they will not have to hunt for his meanings in a maze of obfuscation. And when you listen to him, you have no doubt that his words do not come from a committee of advisors but from his own convictions."


All very noble, in a cinematic way: in an election year when the talk is of campaign "narratives," as if running for office is like starring in a movie, the slick production values of the McCain Story played a key role in the 24-hour-a-day NATO propaganda blitz, and played it quite self-consciously. This is how "power players" are made. During the debate over his crazed Senate resolution urging the President to use "all necessary means" to prosecute the war on Serbia, he admitted as much:

"I know I have spoken provocatively. Although I believe my points are correct, I could have been a little more restrained in offering them. I was not because I hope it will encourage, perhaps incite is a better word, greater debate today than is contemplated by our leaders."


McCain, the inciter of war – do we want his finger on the nuclear trigger? Amid all the self-righteous fingerpointing that went on about which candidate was spreading rumors that McCain was a little unhinged – the "whispering campaign" was generally blamed on the Bush camp – only Camille Paglia gave voice to the obvious:

"The TV camera does not lie, , , , It exposed McCain over time as a seething nest of proto-fascist impulses. Despite his recent flurry of radiant, P.R.-coached grins, McCain has the weirdly and over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel (from Mel Brooks' Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety."

Of course you have to be Camille Paglia to tell these things just by looking at McCain on TV, quite aside from anything he might have to say. For those who required more solid confirmation of the man’s madness, there was his memorable performance on CNN’s Crossfire [April 2, 1999], in which he answered Bob Novak’s question about what we ought to do in Kosovo as follows:

"I think it's as follows, Bob, increase the intensity of the bombing, recognizing that that entails civilian casualties. That's the reason why war is so terrible. And it may even mean losses of aircraft. It also means that we should, as quickly as possible, prepare for the ground troops option if necessary. And obviously, that's the last one. In the meantime, there's a whole lot of things we can do with our Apache helicopters, with A-10 Warthogs and with a number of other assets that we have, and devote it all. "


He didn’t care how many casualties it took: McCain made it clear, time and again, that he wanted to "win" this war at any cost. And this is one of the first and most noticeable symptoms of madness – the loss of any sense of proportion. Here we are talking about an area of the world accurately described by Bismarck as not worth the life of a single Prussian grenadier, the scene of endless religious and ethnic wars going back seven hundred years, with no treaty pledging us to defend the territorial integrity of an ally. Indeed, we were violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation whose President we had hailed, a few short years ago at Dayton, as the great peacemaker of the Balkans. Why launch a mass invasion and military occupation of a region in which the US has no historical, economic, or national security interest? McCain’s answer was that our "values" dictated such a course. He was and is fond of comparing alleged Serb "atrocities" in Kosovo to the Holocaust: in a speech before the Center for Security and International Studies he accused the Serbs of "having waged a campaign of atrocities against ethnic Albanians the likes of which we never expected to see again in Europe."


McCain pompously declared that he would "take responsibility" for any American blood that was shed – but what about the thousands of Serbs, Gypsies, and others killed and many more wounded, mutilated, impoverished, and humiliated by the bombing campaign he wanted to escalate? Now that approximately 200 bodies have been exhumed from the "mass graves" of Kosovo – with no more than a few thousand estimated casualties waiting to be uncovered at other sites – will he take responsibility for having misled the American people? Yet another symptom of mental disturbance is the inability to admit to mistakes, or to take any kind of moral responsibility for one’s action: for instance, serial killers often do not comprehend the difference between right and wrong. They lack an organ all others seem to have, in varying degrees, one that enables the moral sense.


This seems the key to understanding McCain’s opportunism, and yet there seems to be, at least in the foreign policy area, a fair degree of ideological commitment This is the man who has declared that he thinks "the United States should inaugurate a 21st century interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine, call it rogue state rollback, in which we politically and materially support indigenous forces within and outside of rogue states to over throw regimes that threaten our interests and values."


This is McCain’s formula for intervention unlimited. From the Middle East to the Far East, from Kosovo to points unknown and open-ended, the McCain Doctrine means a whole series of "liberation" wars – just like the one that "liberated" Kosovo. In the mind of McCain, the conquest of Kosovo is just the beginning, the first phase in a worldwide struggle. I have great difficulty thinking of a single trouble spot on earth that the Senator has not suggested some form of US intervention: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, the Caucasus, East Asia, perhaps even Rwanda. In the event of that ultimate horror, a McCain presidency, his odious mantra, repeated endlessly during the Kosovo war, might be revised: "We’ve got to win it – since I’ve gotten you in it."


The significance of McCain’s media-generated rise as Dubya’s only big challenger is that it signifies the triumph and consolidation of the GOP internationalists. While the Republican congressional leadership and the grassroots opposed Clinton’s war – and not just because it was Clinton’s – these two would-be party standard-bearers endorsed military action. The great "contest" for what is left of the soul of the Republican Party is a struggle between the moderate and militant wings of the War Party. When it comes to foreign policy, there is no real debate, since their differences are purely stylistic: while Bush is the passive receptacle of his advisors’ ambitious interventionism, McCain once again plays the role of the inciter – a firebrand with a messianic streak right next to his mean streak.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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