J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

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Speculation: The McCain Myth and What the Palin Pick Really Means

Let's go back and review the Keating Five scandal one more time. (By the way, this is material that I'd been working for a much, much longer piece on John McCain that just isn't coming together well as one long series. But don't worry, all the pieces will eventually get used.) Not long after John McCain's friends Barry Goldwater and Ross Perot got him his brand-new job as a US Representative (not yet Senator), one of the first people in Arizona politics John McCain made friends with was a Republican activist, and in particular a nationally famous anti-pornography crusader, named Charles Keating. Keating's "day job" was as the head of a chain of Arizona banks, Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan. This was not a great line of work to be in, in the early 1980s; for a variety of reasons that are themselves interesting, but complicated and not relevant to this article, just about every federally chartered Savings and Loan in the United States was in danger of bankruptcy at the same time.

What makes Charles Keating an interesting part of John McCain's story, though, is not how the bank got into trouble, but what Keating did to try to get his business back out of trouble: tell his bank's investment counselors and salesmen to go out and specifically scam retirees, church pension funds, anybody who'd trust Charles Keating so much (because of his sterling Christian reputation as an anti-pornography crusader) that they wouldn't read the fine print on the papers they signed, into signing over their life's savings in exchange for basically worthless paper. And Keating had a plan as to how he was going to get away with it, too. He spread about a million dollars or so worth of bribes across Arizona's entire congressional delegation, plus several other congressmen in important oversight positions, with the understanding that the congressmen would put pressure on the federal prosecutors and on the Office of Thrift Supervision to tell them to call off any investigation of Lincoln Savings and Loan. McCain's share was about $112,000. But the bribes didn't save Keating from going to jail for it, and the next several years were not good to the famous "Keating Five" who took those bribes and who, every one of them including McCain, had their staff members make the phone calls and write the letters to tell the feds to back off. Four of the five of them lost their careers over this.

McCain got away with it, and I'll tell you why. When they feds showed up in his office, offended over his "back off" orders, and showed him the evidence they had on Keating, he was aghast -- and, importantly, surprised. All five of the Keating Five swore up and down that they thought Keating's money was perfectly legal campaign contributions with no quid pro quo, and the only one who was believed was John McCain, because when prosecutors and the ethics committee looked into it, it became clear that it really never occurred to McCain that those were bribes. And coming under investigation for bribery shook John McCain to the very core of his being, because there's only one thing that's as important to John McCain as his constant need to have a super-model on his arm, gazing adoringly up at him, and that's his reputation. If you know the full history of McCain's military service, you can see clearly that he is far, far more concerned about his reputation than he is even about his country. And thus, it brought his whole world crashing down to realize that to people who didn't know him well enough to know that he really was too dumb to recognize a bribe when he was handed one, it would look like John McCain put his office up for sale.

And it's what John McCain did about that that cemented his place in history, to date. He put himself way, way out in front on every ethics issue to pass through Congress from then on: budget reform, campaign finance reform, ethics reform, lobbying reform, you name it. Ironically, he didn't change his own behavior so very much. Going all the way back to Annapolis, where his disciplinary record was so awful that he really shouldn't have graduated at all, John McCain has never believed that the rules applied to him, personally, because "everybody should know" that he's "honest," no matter how things look. John McCain's late 1980s, and all through the 1990s, campaign for ethical reform in Congress was first and foremost and always about repairing his personal reputation, and only secondarily about repairing Congress's reputation, and only distantly after that about actually cleaning up any actual or perceived scandals in Washington. But for two very large, and very important constituencies in American politics, that was enough! Three, really. For two, it was enough to make him a hero for life; for the third, an enemy for life.

See, here's the thing. Going all the way back to the first "muck-raker" journalists of the late 19th century, there has always been a solid corps among the reporters who cover politics, maybe even a majority of them, who only care about one issue, and that's government corruption. In the wake of Prohibition, the muck-rakers got their own caucus within the Democratic Party, the Reform Democrats who lead the charge to de-mafia-ize America's largest cities, and to this day, the Reform Democrats are still a substantial percent of the activists and leaders in the volunteer base of the Democratic Party. As the Republicans gained in power, they acquired their own matching caucus, the Reform Republicans, and what the Reform Democrats and the Reform Democrats agree on, and work together on, is one core belief: that it doesn't matter nearly so much what a government's principles are, what its plans are, or even what its laws are, so much as it matters that government employees are as competent as possible and the politicians who supervise them are completely honest. Ideologues in both parties, who think that yes, principles do matter, hold Reformers in absolute, total, and naked contempt. They don't even call them Reformers, they think that conveys too much legitimacy on what seems to them to be an idiotic and naïve political ideal. The rest of both parties coined their own dismissive, childish nickname for the Reform Democrats, Reform Republicans, and muck-raking journalists: they call them (us) the Goo Goos, a diminutive of "good government." And from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, everybody in Washington agreed that the biggest, loudest, and ugliest of the Goo-Goos was John McCain. Or at most, the 2nd or 3rd biggest. But still, way up there.

(That third political constituency after the Reform Democrats and the Reform Republicans? That'd be the Country-Club Republicans, who hate the Goo-Goos with the fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns. To a Country-Club Republican, bribery is the only tool that the wealthy and powerful businessmen and investors who, they think, are the only people in the country who know how things should really be run, have to outweigh the mere votes and opinions of the ignorant poor and middle class. As I assume you can guess, that constituency really, really hates John McCain, and that's why they were pushing so hard for the only ex-CEO in the race, one of their own, Mitt Romney.)

And here's the part that's really relevant to this weekend's news, and to the week to come. John McCain remembers those days fondly as the only time in his life that the Press actually loved him. Yes, Sarah Palin is a woman, and I'm sure that some idiot somewhere in the Republican Party mistakenly thinks that the PUMAs will be delighted to see a younger, prettier, blatantly unqualified girl be offered the job that they think that their comfortably middle aged dues-paying standard bearer was robbed of. (According to the early polling, uh, not so much. Unsurprisingly.) And yes, she's an ex-beauty-queen, and still young enough to be pretty to John McCain, and that makes her an acceptable choice to him. But Sarah Palin has one other qualification that must have jumped right off of the page at McCain: she's a Reform Republican, quite possibly the only Reform Republican governor. If you look over her political biography, Sarah Palin has run for office, from her very first run for hick-town city government, on one and only one platform. Yes, she's taken positions on other issues, from guns to abortion to creationism to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. (And, as has been observed elsewhere, she's already taken both sides of that issue.) But those aren't the issues that motivate her. The issue that motivates her, clearly, is anti-corruption. And just as it made John McCain a media darling in the 90s, it made her a political darling of the Alaska state media in the 2000s. (And just as with McCain, it looks like she's not as clean as she says, either. But trust me, reporters are just as hypocritical as anybody else with a religious faith; it is far more important to a muck-raking journalist that a politician denounce corruption than it is that they give it up, themselves.)

So here's my tentative prediction. John McCain is giving up the "experience" meme as a long-term loser; the last of the ads touting his "experience" and attacking Obama as "not ready" will stop as soon as the current media buy runs out. They have to; Palin's even younger, and far less experienced, than Obama, so he can't get away with that any more. And, frankly, if you look at the polling data at FiveThirtyEight.com, you can see that it hasn't exactly been working for them, anyway. No, I think what you're going to hear at the Republican Convention, and hear a lot, is a lot of talk about John McCain the Reformer. I think McCain's willing to risk hearing the name Charles Keating however often it takes, as long as it gives him and his surrogates opportunities to say "Tony Rezko" over and over again. This isn't doom for the Obama campaign; Obama's got his own ethics reform legislative chops that he can point to, especially in state government, and he has his own native constituency in land of journalism, the "reality based community" who love him for his commitment to intellectualism and evidence-based reasoning. But I think that the real reason that John McCain gambled his career on Sarah Palin is that he plausibly hopes that updating his Goo-Goo credentials will make the muck-rakers in the newsrooms all over the country fall in love with him again, will remember why they (we) loved him in the first place, before he went psycho after 9/11 and before the mental deterioration became impossible to ignore. He wants us to forget the last couple of years, especially, and come back to him.

I don't think it'll work. FiveThirtyEight.com doesn't think it will work, and I trust their methodology more than any other I've seen. But I'll say this for him: it may look stupid, but it's probably the smartest thing he's done this whole campaign.
Tags: election 2008, politics

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