Requiem for a Maverick

John McCain ran one of the most incompetent, schizo campaigns in history — and for that we owe him big-time

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This article originally appeared in RS 1066 from November 27, 2008. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Election night at the Biltmore in Arizona is a hilariously dismal scene, like a funeral for a family member nobody liked, who died owing everyone money. The rats here are already bailing off the ship with lightning speed, like L.A. Dodgers fans leaving a playoff game to catch the latest episode of Entourage. The exodus, in fact, begins about eight seconds into John McCain's concession speech, which incidentally starts off on the classiest of notes: with the remaining crowd cursing the name of the new president.

"A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama," McCain begins.

"Boooooo!" bellows the crowd. Outside the hotel, a wine-drunk young woman in a fluffy white ball gown probably last worn at a Liberty University frat mixer angrily flings a would-be celebratory pompom she has been clutching into my face. "I can't listen to this shit!" she yells, scooting away.

I peel the plastic pompom bits off my face and stick them in my bag, where they are soon joined by a McCain-Palin "Victory 2008" Election Night T-shirt — bought for gloating purposes at a rapidly plummeting discount. Republican-souvenir prices haven't been this low since Watergate.

By the time McCain finishes his short, commendably gracious speech a few minutes later, almost all the Republican revelers have begun to flee the premises. The few who stick around are trying to suck the last value out of the meals and cocktails they so willingly overpaid for earlier in the night, when there was still a chance they'd end up with something to celebrate. At the hotel exit, a pair of Arizona State students are grumbling about the food.

"We paid, like, 10 bucks for a burger," says 18-year-old Emily Zizzo.

"We were outraged," agrees her 20-year-old friend Dori Jaffess.

I ask them why they think McCain lost. Dori says a big reason is that "a lot of big movie stars came out for Obama." I ask her which ones.

"Um, Puff Daddy?" she says. "Although I don't know if Puff Daddy came out for Obama."

"There's Oprah," adds Emily.

"Yeah, Oprah," says Dori.

A few yards away, a pair of thirtysomething women in an advanced wine slog have gotten into a screaming match with a Hispanic cameraman. One of them, 33-year-old Kristen McEntire, is already spinning out a conspiracy theory to explain McCain's defeat, suggesting that the media called the election in some key states before the polls closed, tricking hordes of would-be McCain voters into staying home. Obama, she assures me, is a "novelty" who will "go away within the next couple of years."

"Um," I say. "Go away?"

"I just don't think America's ready for a black president," she explains. "And I don't mean that in a racial way whatsoever."

It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word "Republican" what 1972 did for the word "liberal": turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn't just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren't just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

They lost in every way imaginable, on every political front. The symbol of their anti-gay crusade, Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, was beheaded. The party that had made so much hay running against Mexicans saw noted anti-immigration crusader Bill Sali of Idaho ousted along with several other members of the Immigration Reform Caucus. The GOP's grasp on the so-called "moral values" issue likewise went up in roaring flames, with Rep. Vito Fossella of Staten Island the poster child — his morals were once so perfect that he refused to be seen with his gay sister, and now he's a national joke, bounced after being caught drunk driving and having unprotected, babymaking sex with a married Air Force officer.

The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. This was fucking up on a scale known only to a select few groups in history, your Romanovs, your Habsburgs, maybe the Han Dynasty, which pissed away a golden age of Chinese history by letting eunuchs take over the state. But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. They compounded a millionfold Bush's legacy of incompetence by soiling both possible Republican ideological strategies going forward: They killed off Bush-style neoconservatism as well as the more traditional fiscal conservatism McCain himself was once known for by trying to fuse both approaches into one gorgeously incoherent ticket. It was like trying to follow the recipes for Texas 10-alarm chili and a three-layer Black Forest chocolate cake in the same pan at the same time. The result — well, just take a bite!

I witness the whole pathetic mess summed up a week before the election, on a baseball field in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The campaign has scheduled an outdoor rally, with a joint appearance by McCain and Palin, at this crucial moment in the race. But now there is driving snow and sleet, trees downed on roads all around, and the campaign — with no alternate indoor plan — is forced to cancel the event at the last minute. I watch as locals keep pulling up to the field, looking for the candidate, a lonely, rain-soaked "Country First" banner whipping back and forth above the stage. The whole scene captures the essence of the McCain run perfectly: Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.

It was like that all election season. McCain kicked off his campaign with a stump speech that emphasized his inspirational personal story and experience. Then he picked someone even less experienced than Obama as his running mate and switched to a strategy of attacking his opponent's relationships with people like Bill Ayers. When that petered out, he switched to a new line of attack, trotting out the socialism business and claiming Obama was running for the office of "redistributionist-in-chief." The McCain camp tried running against the press, they tried running against Washington, they tried running against the Bush administration, they even tried ru

John McCain and Sarah Palin, after all, represented two completely different approaches to Republican conservatism. McCain comes from the school of politicking that goes after as many votes as possible by waving a flag and saying as little as possible, which is to say he was basically a third-way Democrat with a Goldwater fetish. His basic plan heading into the general election seemed strikingly similar to that of the dipshit vice president character from the uninspiring but weirdly prescient Chris Rock movie Head of State, who ran on a platform of "I've been vice president for the last eight years, I'm a war hero and I'm Sharon Stone's cousin."

McCain's shtick wasn't exactly that, but it was close. He was a war hero who married an heiress to a beer distributorship and had been in the Senate since the Mesozoic Era. His greatest strength as a politician had up until this year been his ability to "reach across the aisle," a quality that in the modern Republican Party was normally about as popular as open bisexuality. His presence atop the ticket this year was evidence of profound anxiety within the party about its chances in the general election. After eight disastrous years of Bush, they thought they had lost the middle — so they picked a middling guy to get it back.

Which made sense, right up until the moment when they stuck him with Pinochet in heels for a running mate. Sarah Palin would have been a brilliant choice as a presidential nominee — and she will be, in 2012, when she leads the inevitable Republican counter-revolution against Obama's presidency. She's a classic divide-and-conquer politician, an unapologetic Witch Hunter and True Believer with a gift for whipping up the mob against the infidel. In a way that even George W. Bush never was, she is Karl Rove's wet dream, the Osama bin Laden of soccer moms, crusading against germs, communism, atheism and other such unclean elements strictly banned by American law.

Palin is exactly the kind of all-or-nothing fundamentalist to whom the career of John McCain had long existed as a kind of sneering counterargument. Up until this year, McCain had firmly rejected the emotional imperatives implicit in Bush-Rove-Gingrich conservatism, in which the relentless demonizing of liberals and liberalism was even more important than policy. While other Republicans were crusading against gay marriage in 2004, McCain bashed a proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment, calling it "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans." While the president and other Republicans wrapped their arms around the Falwells of the world, McCain blasted those preachers as "agents of intolerance." He talked of seeing the hand of God when he hiked in the Grand Canyon, but insisted loudly that he believed in evolution. He even, for Christ's sake, supported a ban on commercial whaling. If there's anything that a decent Republican knows without being told, it's that whales are a liberal constituency.

But McCain didn't care. Back then, his political survival didn't depend on keeping voters artificially geeked up on fear and hatred for Mexicans or biology teachers or other such subversives. He was, after all, a war hero, and Sharon Stone's cousin.

In short, McCain entered this election season being the worst thing that anyone can be, in the eyes of the Rove-school Republicans: Different. Independent. His own man. He exited the campaign on his knees, all his dignity gone, having handed the White House to the hated liberals after spending the last months of the race with numb-nuts Sarah Palin on his arm and Karl Rove's cock in his mouth. Even if you wanted to vote for him, you didn't know who you were voting for. The old McCain? The new McCain? Neither? Both?

On Election Night, even those at McCain's farewell party seem to sense that their candidate had taken a seriously wrong turn. "It might have been better if he hadn't tried to appease the hardcore conservatives so much," sighs Tawnya Pfitzer, a 36-year-old Arizona doctor. "I think he should have concentrated on what made him who he is."

Maybe. But it probably wouldn't have made a difference.

One of the great clichés of campaign journalism is the notion that American elections have long since ceased to be about issues and ideas. Instead, pompous cliché-spreaders like myself have argued, our TV-age political contests have devolved into grotesque marathons of mawkish entertainment programming, intellectually on par with a season of Survivor, in which the command of the most powerful military force in human history is handed to that unscrupulous nitwit who over the course of 18 months succeeds in getting himself photographed the most times and in the most swing states bowling a strike or wearing a duck-hunting costume.

We've dumbed this process up so much over the years, in fact, that it had lately become hard to imagine an American presidential election being anything but an embarrassment to the very word "democracy." By 2004, that once-cherished ideal of political freedom and self-governance that millions of young men and women gave their lives to protect as recently as WWII had been reduced to the level of absurdist comedy. You had a millionaire Yalie in an army jacket taking on a millionaire Yalie in a cowboy hat, fighting tooth and nail for the right to be named the man "middle America most wants to have a beer with" by a gang of Ivy League journalists — a group of people whose closest previous exposure to "middle America" was typically either an episode of Cops or a Von Dutch trucker hat they'd bought for $23 at Urban Outfitters.

In short, it was an utterly degrading bourgeois/ruling-class media deception that "ordinary Americans," if they had any brains at all, ought to have been disgusted by to the point of rebellion. But ordinary Americans, alas, would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of eternity mesmerized by the endless and endlessly condescending I'd Like to Have a Beer With You sideshow, leaving the boring policy stuff to the people who actually pay for the campaigns. Things could have just kept getting dumber and dumber, and no one would have been surprised. There was certainly no trend that suggested our presidential elections were bound to return to being great, sweepingly important contests of ideas. But that's what happened.

Like millions of Americans, I watched Barack Obama's victory on Election Night in a state of amazement. The only thing that gave me pause was the question of what kind of country this remarkable figure was now inheriting. Some of the luster of Obama's triumph would come off if the American presidency were no longer the Most Powerful Office in the World but simply the top job in a hopelessly broken nation suffering an irreversible decline.

Of all the problems facing this country by the end of the Bush years, the biggest is the absence of a unifying national idea. Since the end of the Cold War, America has been grasping left and right for an identity. We tried being a "world policeman" in Somalia, which didn't work so well. We tried retaining our Cold War outlook by simply replacing communists with terrorists. We created two bubble economies that blew up in our faces, and headed into 2008 a struggling capitalist state with a massive trade deficit and an overtaxed military that suddenly had to ask itself: For the supposed world leader in the community of nations, what exactly is it that we're still good at? Who are we, and what do we represent to the peoples of the Earth here and now — not in 1775 Concord, or 1945 Paris, or 1969, from the surface of the moon?

When Obama took the stage in Grant Park as president-elect, that question was answered. We pulled off an amazing thing here, delivering on our society's most ancient promises, in front of a world that still largely thought of us as the home of Bull Connor's fire hose. This dumbed-down, degraded election process of ours has, in spite of itself and to my own extreme astonishment, brilliantly re-energized the American experiment and restored legitimacy to our status as the world's living symbol of individual freedom. We feel like ourselves again, and the floundering economy and our two stagnating wars now seem like mere logistical problems that will be overcome sooner or later, instead of horrifying symptoms of inevitable empire-decline.

For this to happen, absolutely everything had to break right. And for that we will someday owe sincere thanks to John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and George W. Bush. They not only screwed it up, they screwed it up just right.

This article originally appeared in RS 1066 from November 27, 2008. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

From The Archives Issue 143: September 13, 1973