Saint John

Unfortunately, Citizen McCain is no Politics and Money. Rather than focus on the nuts and bolts of the new campaign-finance law (which bans soft-money contributions to national parties), on the clash of interests and ideologies that shaped it, and on the possible benefits or difficulties it will create, Drew relates the narrative of John McCain’s labors to get the bill through Congress. That’s a real disappointment. Drew’s expertise on campaign-finance law and how it has been subverted in the past would be of great use in sorting through the arguments, pro and con, about how much use the new law will be. Is the soft-money ban likely to pass muster in the courts? Will it weaken the political parties? How quickly should we expect clever lawyers to find ways to get around the new restrictions? I incline toward the view that campaign-finance laws merely slow the flow of money until new loopholes are found, yet that this is in itself valuable. Like McCain, I’m not dispirited by the notion that Congress will have to revisit the issue every few years. (To complain that any given campaign-finance reform is impermanent is like saying, “Why vacuum the carpet when it’s just going to get dirty again?”) But maybe I’m wrong. I haven’t done much reporting on the subject and I haven’t engaged the various arguments as fully as I ought. A book that did this for me (in greater depth than what newspapers and magazines provide) would be of real value. Drew didn’t write it.

Another book Drew didn’t write was a full-bodied narrative of how the campaign-finance bill became law, on the order of Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum’s Showdown at Gucci Gulch (about the 1986 tax-reform bill) or Steven Waldman’s The Bill (about the creation of AmeriCorps). To write such a book, Drew would have had to delve into a variety of characters and incidents. But principal players in the fight over campaign finance reform—Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Russell Feingold, Rep. Marty Meehan—appear at best fleetingly in Drew’s narrative. As the title suggests, the book is really about John McCain, who, though clearly the most important actor in this play, isn’t the only one.

What we have instead is a McCain’s-eye-view of the campaign reform fight. That would have been interesting if Drew had been able to snag insider details unavailable to other journalists. But she wasn’t, probably through no great fault of her own. (McCain is not known for his inaccessibility.) The outbursts, the badinage with his staff, the various ways McCain relates contemporary events to his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam—we’ve read about these many times before. Nor does Drew have a particularly original view about what makes McCain tick. New-Journalism-style literary experimentation that put the reader inside her subject’s head might have perked things up, but Drew is no Tom Wolfe or Richard Ben Cramer (and is wise not to try to be). Even as a threadbare narrative of McCain’s campaign-bill crusade, the book disappoints because it veers off toward the end to describe McCain’s post-September 11 efforts to pass an airport-security bill, to fend off a huge tax cut, and, in general, to reassure the country. “McCain’s instinct for what the psyche of the nation needed was in perfect working order,” Drew asserts.

That observation, and others like it sprinkled throughout the book, convey Drew’s unqualified adoration of McCain. I say this as a strong admirer of McCain who is deeply impressed by McCain’s life story and his willingness to fight for unpopular ideas, most of which I agree with. I’m even willing to accept Drew’s thesis that with the campaign-finance bill, McCain proved that he could actually get things done in Congress. (One rap against McCain had been that he was too ornery and publicity-hungry, and not diplomatic enough, to work well with others.) Drew, though, can’t stop gushing. McCain is “the most consistently sought-after, and the clearest, voice out of Washington.” He’s beloved by his staff, which is important because politicians’ “relations with their staffs offer a more accurate measure of their character.” McCain’s appearances on Don Imus’s radio show demonstrate that “McCain has figured out how to tap into the popular culture.” McCain doesn’t ignore the needs of Arizonans, “[d]espite all his national prominence.” After September 11, McCain “offered more leadership than did the President.” When Bush finally started speaking eloquently about the crisis, it was because his “rhetoric was starting to resemble McCain’s.” When McCain gave a eulogy for Mark Bingham, one of the passengers who wrested control of United Flight 93 out of the hands of terrorist hijackers steering the plane toward Washington, “[t]here was no publicity about the event.” (Oh yeah? Then how come I knew about it?)

Drew does neither her readers nor McCain any favors by putting the man on a pedestal. If he runs for president in 2004, the voters are bound to learn that McCain pushed an unnecessarily sweeping taxpayer bailout for the airline industry (Drew mentions the bill, but not that many people saw it as an outrageous act of corporate welfare) and that McCain is himself capable of being a fiscal demagogue (during the 2000 campaign he outflanked Bush by refusing to consider taxing Internet commerce, a fact that Drew never mentions when touting McCain’s fiscal responsibility). The plaster saint that Drew sculpts here could never have gotten campaign finance reform through Congress, and would be smashed to pieces if he were ever elected president. Fortunately, the real McCain is a lot fleshier and more conniving than this book lets on.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is labor policy editor at Politico and author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1983 to 1985.