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Matt Welch, editor of the libertarian magazine McCain and the Independent vote Pt3

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Hello, and welcome to The Real News and our ongoing coverage of the Republican national convention. Now we talk about John McCain, the man and the myth. And who better to talk about it than Matt Welch, who wrote a book, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick? Matt’s the editor of a well-known libertarian magazine called Reason, and you can find it at Thanks for joining us, Matt.


JAY: So McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, which sort of says he ain’t really a maverick. What conclusion did you come to after reading the book?

WELCH: Well, I would say that he’s more “mavericky.” His selection of Sarah Palin was a mavericky move. He likes to do sort of unexpected things. At the same time, he’s sort of in the traditional cloth of the ex-military-man-turned-politician, in that he makes a great show of putting country first over political party, which was absolutely the strongest theme of the first night, really, of the convention here.

JAY: And is there any truth to it?

WELCH: I’m sorry?

JAY: Is there any truth to it that he puts country above narrow partisanship?

WELCH: Sure. Like all good myths, there are some chunks that are true. However, there are other myths that have grown around McCain that are objectively false and that he’s trading in on to try to become president of the United States, most notably that he’s any kind of straight-talker when in fact he’s not. I mean, he obfuscates, he lies openly, he flip-flops as much as any other politician.

JAY: For example?

WELCH: For example, he looked people in the eye all campaign, where they say, “Hey, look, you’ve flip-flopped on so many issues. What the hell is going on?” And his response is, like, I haven’t flip-flopped on a single issue. Never have.” Or he’ll say, you know, he said to me when I interviewed him—or asked a question in the press conference because they didn’t allow me to interview him—but he said to me, apropos of nothing, “I’ve never held a grudge against anybody and I never would.” If you walked to Arizona and asked any random person on the street to tell you anything about John McCain, they will say one thing: that is one person who seriously holds a grudge.

JAY: I was struck by, in 2004, this question of putting country first. I think much of rational America, informed America, on many sides of the political spectrum, realized that by 2004 the Iraq War was one of the great strategic blunders, mismanaged. Whether you agreed with invading Iraq or not, almost everybody agreed that the management of the war was terrible. McCain stepped in to support Bush at a critical moment—what to my mind was not just a partisan move but also kind of a positioning move for McCain in 2008. He had to show that he would be in the breach with the Republicans so they’d be there with him in ’08. I mean, I don’t see how in 2004 John McCain put the country first.

WELCH: You know, yeah, he made a coldly political calculation of saying that Bush and Cheney, this wonderful man, Vice President Dick Cheney, in his words, were the stewards that we need for this war. “They’ve done a marvelous job all along.” And, you know, mostly ever since then he’s been trying to backpedal away and say, “I was the first critic of the war.” He gave a rip-roaring speech at the 2004 Republican convention, in which he said that anyone who doubts the necessity of this war is deluded, which is a really strong word if you think about it. He also said some other things that he has since completely contradicted in his speeches. For instance, he said that our allies need to do more in agreeing with us, basically, that we’re disappointed in the way they acted in opposing our work in this war. Well, in 2008 he’s walking around, giving speeches saying, “Oh, of course we’re going to pay heed to our allies,” and he’d even be willing to be persuaded by them in times of war. This is utter nonsense. McCain, every time America has been at war or thinking about going to war, McCain has been so bellicose to the point of irrationality when it comes to what other countries say about our decisions.

JAY: What about the role in the media in creating the myth of a maverick? We hear this word “maverick” over and over and over again, and with such repetition that people just say, “Okay, he’s a maverick.” But other than a few bipartisan bills and maybe taking on, on certain questions, some issues of corruption in Congress, although a lot of people say it didn’t go much more than skin deep, I mean, what’s real about the maverick? And what about the media in helping create this myth?

WELCH: Well, as the great Minneapolis resident Prince has taught us, there is joy in repetition. And McCain has said this often enough, and clearly some part of him really wants to believe that he is and holds onto this sense of honesty as a lone star that he wants to try to live up to. He believes that his father never told a lie, for example, so he repeats this all the time. And also, for the last 20 years, he’s had the best and most effective media strategy of any Republican politician in this country by a factor of two or three—it’s not even close. He learned early on, answer every question until they run out of them, and low and behold you’re going to get some good press.

JAY: It seems to me that John McCain’s about as much a maverick as Dick Cheney. I mean, Dick Cheney defied the CIA. He bucked the State Department. He bucked traditional US foreign policy. I mean, we can call Dick Cheney a maverick. And I say it in a sense that, because McCain really seems to agree with Cheney’s foreign policy, and many of his advisors are Cheney-esque in their outlook, people like Randy Scheunemann, who started this free-Iraq committee, and James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, and all these guys were involved in something called the Committee on the Present Danger, which was all about reshaping the world with military force. What did you find out in writing this book? Like, you’ve got this veneer of maverick, but the real McCain seems to be about his connections with people like Joe Lieberman, AIPAC, and this very interventionist foreign policy.

WELCH: McCain’s life goes in three stages. His father and his grandfather were four-star admirals in the US Navy. And not just that, they were leading intellectual exponents of the idea of the US Navy replacing what was basically the 19th-century British navy as the guarantor of the world’s shipping lanes and as, basically, a Unipower, as the only sole superpower, once we finally defeat the commies. McCain marinated in this his entire life. His grandfather worked in Teddy Roosevelt’s navy. He believes in the ideology more than anything else of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who understood that America will become a superpower if it drastically expanded his navy. His father, his nickname was “Mr. Sea Power,” you know? He would quote colonialist British poetry from the 19th century at the breakfast table. So that’s McCain’s life. Gets shot down over Vietnam. That’s stage one. He always believed in it. He never even thought about it. That was just part of who he was. Comes back from Vietnam, and he has a bit of a Vietnam Syndrome complex. He’s traumatized by the divisions in the country, because it makes him think that people have lost faith in the idea that America is the shining beacon on a hill. So for 25 years he’s absolutely cautious about the use of American force. Fast forward to the last part, the more public part of John McCain’s life, starting around 1997, 1998, and 1996. That’s when he starts hanging around those guys who you named. That is the first time that he actually decides to write a book-length treatment of his Vietnam experience and impose a brand new meaning on it that he never had before, which is that he had been an individualist, a maverick, an egotist all of his life, but he found out that that wasn’t enough and he had to sacrifice for the cause greater than yourself, and only then can you really confront your enemies. When he came up with that idea, exactly at that time, the Weekly Standard guys, the editors, William Kristol, the big founding neoconservative—his father basically founded the idea of neoconservatism—Kristol and David Brooks, his best writer, sat down and wrote this essay about national-greatness conservatism, in which they would reject the limited-government sort of Barry Goldwater libertarianism of Republicans and go on great national projects. Chief among those was a far more aggressive foreign policy than was ever being contemplated in recent American history. [inaudible]

JAY: Matt, we’re running out of time for this segment. Let’s pick up again one more segment of the interview, where we’ll talk a little more about John McCain and the neocons. Please join us for the next part of our interview with Matt Welch.


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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.