Late last month, at a dusty fairground outside Tucson, John McCain stood behind the person who is, at least for the next few years, surely his most important legacy to American politics. And speaking to the adoring mob, Sarah Palin stood behind John McCain, repaying his inestimable gift to her in the most compelling possible fashion: by helping him to survive.
Facing an impertinent challenge for his Senate seat in the Republican primary this summer, McCain listened to the former Alaska governor heap praise on him. Throughout, he fidgeted with a couple of pieces of paper, sneaking peeks at them every few seconds, and wore a slightly nervous smile, as if not knowing quite what might come out of Palin next. Periodically he applauded, clapping with the bum right hand whose fingers, courtesy of the North Vietnamese, still don't quite come together.
Many, many years ago she'd competed in a beauty pageant, Palin declared, as women howled (and a few men growled) approvingly. McCain would surely win the talent and debate portions of any such contest, she went on, but no way would the Washington elite and "pundints" and "lame-stream media" ever crown him "Miss Congeniality"! "He's never been a company man, he's never been one to just 'go with the flow,'?" she crowed. For there was at least one thing she'd learned in her years of commercial fishing in Alaska: only dead fish do that.
Much as the crowd ate up her every word, Palin had apparently missed the real message this electoral season in Arizona: for his three decades in Congress, McCain hadn't gone with the flow enough, at least not enough to satisfy many Arizona Republicans. Why else would his rival, former congressman J.D. Hayworth, be billing himself as "the consistent conservative"? Many of the GOP's most faithful, the kind who vote in primaries despite 115-degree heat, tired long ago of McCain the Maverick, the man who had crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on issues like immigration reform, global warming, and restricting campaign contributions. "Maverick" is a mantle McCain no longer claims; in fact, he now denies he ever was one. "I never considered myself a maverick," he told me. "I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities." Yet here was Palin, urging her fans four times in 15 minutes to send McCain the Maverick back to Washington.
In contrast to Palin's chirpiness, McCain's subsequent remarks sounded ragged—he got the date of the fall election wrong, for starters—and belligerent, far less pleasing to the crowd, some of whom began drifting off. (Anyone watching via computer could see the size of the online audience dwindle the longer McCain spoke.) But the old warrior, who has not faced a proper homegrown challenge since 1982, had snapped back into fighting form. Even a man who can't applaud quite properly can still form a fist. The unlikely spectacle of a party's most recent standard-bearer—and, despite Palin's popularity among the tea-party types, still its titular leader—facing such a challenge is yet another sign of the polarized state of American politics and the narrowing bandwidth of its parties, one that McCain acceded to, and then intensified, by picking Palin. "The extremes tend to punish any deviation from party orthodoxy," said Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who blamed such rigidity in part for his own decision to retire.
With mainstream politicians paying an ever-greater price for their moderation—witness the Republican gubernatorial primary in Texas and upcoming senatorial primaries in Florida and Utah—mavericks like McCain are becoming an endangered species. That is, if McCain the Maverick is not already extinct. After retreating on a number of issues—gays in the military, climate change, the creation of a national-debt commission—the erstwhile iconoclast has morphed into what the Senate minority leader, Mitch Mc-Connell, calls "a fabulous team player." It was McCain of all people who pledged that, after the president managed to get health care enacted, Obama would get no cooperation from the Republicans for the rest of the year. (He has since backed off that threat a bit, at least on matters of national security.)
If McCain's onetime mentor, Barry Goldwater, could write The Conscience of a Conservative, McCain could pen The Machinations of a Maverick. His dramatic shifts raise several questions: How much of his maverick persona over the years has been real and how much simply tactical? Is he in the midst of some struggle for his soul, or is this evolution simply the latest example, dating back to his days at the Hanoi Hilton, of McCain doing whatever it takes to survive? Is the anger people sense in him anger at Obama, or the American electorate, or fate, or himself? And if, as seems likely, John McCain goes on to serve another term, which John McCain will it be?
Taking absolutely no chances, McCain is tending aggressively to Arizona these days, reestablishing ties, holding town meetings, mending a few of the many, many fences he's knocked down in state Republican circles over the years. "The last time I had a conversation with John I had to hold the phone three feet from my head," says Randy Pullen, the Republican state chairman, whom McCain has repeatedly tried to replace.
Taking on McCain has always required the delicacy of those soldiers in The Hurt Locker, defusing roadside IEDs. Listening to his adversaries in his various presidential runs, you'd think the name on his birth certificate reads "With All Due Respect John McCain" or "We Honor His Service John McCain." But such is the anger this nasty political season that even McCain is not immune. Hayworth beat him up regularly on his drive-time radio show in Phoenix, perfecting a McCain imitation, decrying the "Double Talk Express," nominating him "weenie of the week," suggesting that someone put together a "John McCain Alphabet Book." (A is for amnesty for illegal immigrants, B is for bitter, C is for clenched teeth, D is for difficult, etc.)
Hayworth, who's worn only the uniform of the Eagle Scouts, still pays homage to McCain's military service at the start of every speech. He does not talk about throwing him out of office but of "welcoming him home." But otherwise the gloves are off. Every six years, he says, McCain pays attention to Arizona and pretends to be a conservative, only to revert to moderate form once he's reelected. ("The Johnny Mac Shuffle," he calls it.)
Something about John McCain leaves people, on both left and right, feeling betrayed and disappointed. Even Joe the Plumber has grown disillusioned, concluding he's just another exploitative, elitist pol. But leaving people betrayed and disappointed attests, too, to the extraordinary respect McCain has generated over the years through his personal story, heterodox positions, and apparent authenticity. There's no other politician like him.
Yet catch McCain off guard—or off script—these days, and he can act authentically put-upon and self-pitying. His former champions in the press are picking on him, writing hatchet jobs, he suggests, but it is his Job-like lot to be treated unfairly. Reporters and columnists mourning the man they once loved have their own sinister agenda—he understands that—but, of course, he couldn't care less. As for those pleas to bring back "the old John McCain," it's a familiar refrain to him, code for saying he's unprincipled. The old John McCain, the current one insists, hasn't gone anywhere: any changes in his positions are readily explainable tweaks rather than anything systematic or nefarious. He bristles at charges that he's bitter. "The fact is that Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell and Tom Coburn and Jon Kyl and John Thune and Lamar Alexander—I could give you a list of 50 of them—are saying that McCain never had a better time," he insists, ticking off the names of his Republican colleagues. But he sounds so unhappy saying so!
Indeed, McCain has always been a lousy liar, another reason people have so admired him. Embracing George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign, one friend recalled, McCain looked as if he were "hugging a cactus." There's also his incantation—uttered eight times during a single interview with Matt Lauer in January, and again at that rally in Tucson—that he's "proud" of Palin and their campaign together. It's a labored and strangely lawyerly locution, chosen, perhaps—given the reported strains between the two—because it's at least technically true.
Asked about tensions with Obama, McCain's still no thespian. "Look, I respect the office too much to allow any ill will to…any personal…I obviously disagree, I think he's governing from the left in a right-of-center nation, but…I have the highest respect for President Obama, I think he ran a very strong campaign. He is a great communicator," McCain says. "Not a lot of warmth" is how Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, reportedly McCain's first choice for running mate in 2008, characterizes relations between the two former rivals.
Time was, McCain and Hayworth were allies. When Hayworth came to Congress in 1994, McCain offered him fatherly counsel, warning that in his euphoria he'd feel, as McCain put it, "like a mosquito in a nudist colony," but that he should concentrate on only a few issues. After Hayworth began assailing him on the air, McCain became one of his largest advertisers—in a sense, paying his salary. At the same time, McCain complained to the Federal Election Commission that Hayworth's employers were effectively contributing to his campaign, leading them to cancel the show. (To hear Hayworth tell it, it may also have goaded him into the race.)
That race may be the toughest reelection battle McCain has ever faced, but it's still a mismatch. As Hayworth loved pointing out on the air, for all McCain's talk about money's malign effect on politics, he has millions of dollars on hand, collected from the state's economic and business elite, while Hayworth has collected a comparative pittance. Through a combination of admiration, gratitude, self-interest, and self-defense—he has a legendarily short fuse (and long memory) for those who cross him—McCain has lined up endorsements from virtually every important Republican elected official in the state, along with those of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty. The Hayworth campaign considers the state's largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, a McCain house organ.
As the state's preeminent pollster, Bruce Merrill, points out, the ire into which Hayworth taps is far deeper than it is broad. Arizona has actually grown more moderate in recent years; independents can vote in the state's primaries, and McCain isn't so tempting a target for tea partiers, especially with Palin's imprimatur. Hayworth finds some solace in the fact that the people running McCain's campaign are the very same Beltway types behind his star-crossed presidential race. (Their alien origins were betrayed by early press releases spelling Arizona's second-largest city "T-U-S-C-O-N.")
Many believe McCain's aggressive posture is more emotional than electoral. Even for someone who routinely demonizes opponents, he is said to despise Hayworth and what he thinks he represents: intolerance, corruption (Hayworth was linked to Jack Abramoff), the gravy train of earmarks, which, McCain feels, robbed the Republicans of the presidency and the Congress. McCain himself rarely mentions Hayworth, relying instead on surrogates. "The idea that a man like John McCain has to deal with a Bozo like J.?D. Hayworth is really offensive," says former state attorney general Grant Woods. "To have just a caricature of the opportunistic, bombastic politician throwing grenades at him at this stage of his career is really a sad commentary. Someone needs to drive a wooden stake through this guy's heart."
Like many challengers, Hayworth has largely relied on free media, guerrilla warfare, pranks, stunts—like showing up at McCain headquarters one day seeking debates. He's even politicized the recent unsolved murder of an Arizona rancher, suggesting that McCain's laxness on immigration and border security helped cause his death. "He's gotten under McCain's skin, which is exactly what he wants to do," says a former Democratic senator to whom McCain was once close. "McCain does stupid things if he's really irritated." But Hayworth has made unforced errors of his own, like getting into bed with the birthers.
Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledge McCain's prickliness. "I always felt we were back at the Naval Academy, and he was a senior and I was a plebe," says former senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. The slack that McCain has long gotten from Democrats—whose caucus he once talked of joining—has shortened as he's turned more partisan. If he ever watched himself on television, says one Democrat who has cosponsored legislation with him, he'd see why people say he's bitter.
But McCain still generates an enormous amount of respect, and affection, even—or particularly—from Democrats. "I really admire him for taking on some sacred cows and stepping on some toes," says Carl Levin of Michigan, with whom McCain has worked on defense procurement. "He is very independent, compared to most of us, perhaps." "I'm glad all of us aren't like John McCain, but I'm glad a few of us are," says former senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Few on either side of the aisle claim to know the man. Invariably, their refrain is the same: they're politicians, they say—not shrinks.
With no prominent Democrats in the race, a win in the Republican primary will almost certainly return McCain to Washington. But which McCain? On that, Hayworth and McCain agree. "It'll be a lead-pipe cinch that John will go back to being John, and taking delight at poking conservatives in the eye," says Hayworth. "He'd like to have that status that a Ted Kennedy had as 'lion of the Senate,' doing those things that win him praise in the eyes of the Washington press corps." "The fundamentals of my character were formed a long, long time ago under sometimes difficult circumstances," says McCain. "I'm not going to fundamentally change."
But, of course, that's what they'd both say. Others believe it's simply too early to tell. McCain always goes with his gut, they note, and he's too intent now on surviving to know what he'll do once he has. Others wonder whether, after all this hyperpartisanship, he could snap back into being a maverick, even if he wanted to. Still others point to his ambitions. McCain himself says he'd love to serve as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But that can happen only with a Republican majority. And that won't come from crossing any aisles.
Given his lingering invulnerability, John McCain seems poised to stick around awhile. What's still unclear is not just who he'll be but whether there will ever, or could ever, be another.