Goldwater, Reagan and John McCain

In 1986, a young Arizona Congressman committed an act of great presumption: he announced his candidacy for the Senate. At 49 years old, John McCain had been a member of Congress for less than four years, a resident of his state for less than six and an active member of the Republican Party for less than 10. And yet what made McCain's gambit truly audacious was the senator whose shoes he believed he could fill: Barry Goldwater, a man whose name was not only the greatest in Arizona politics, but the most hallowed in modern conservatism. Any Republican seeking Goldwater's seat in the Senate couldn't help but think of himself as a steward of the great revolutionary tradition of the American conservative movement.

Certainly, in himself, John McCain saw that man.

Goldwater, McCain would later write in his autobiography, was "an authentic maverick who had, more than any single person, broken the Democratic Party's hold on Arizona politics and the East Coast establishment's hold on the Republican Party." He was "irascible and principled, fiercely independent and deeply patriotic." He was the kind of conservative John McCain wanted to be.

Yet, as he ran for, and won, Goldwater's seat that fall, McCain sensed that somehow the feeling wasn't mutual. The retiring senator had never been particularly warm to McCain the Congressman and seemed openly hostile to the idea of McCain the Senator. Goldwater, McCain would write, "appealed to every principle and instinct in my nature. And I really don't think he liked me much. I don't know why that was."

It was not the last time McCain would be mystified that others failed to see what he saw in himself: a conservative in the movement's most heroic tradition. Goldwater's complaint was geographic—McCain was not a native son of the West. The elder statesman had built his movement around the notion of the West as the home of righteous rebellion, a virtuous land at war with the corrupt forces back East. He once wondered aloud "if this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea." He worried that McCain, a child of the military establishment, educated in the East, just wasn't Western enough.

Two decades later, the Republican nominee is still trying to prove Goldwater wrong. Since his boyhood, the Republican nominee has been drawn to the grand theater of manliness, to tales of men whose bravery led them to death or glory or both. His favorite author is Hemingway and his hero is Teddy Roosevelt, who taught that the strenuous, unpredictable life was the only life worth living. In the arena, he has embraced conservatism less as an ideology than as a style of living—a politics of drama, daring and flare.

His fondness for the theatrical links him to the great leaders of modern conservatism. From William F. Buckley Jr. and Goldwater, to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, the most successful conservative statesmen have, at every turn, framed the cause of the right as an epic, urgent struggle for good in the face of evil. With his improbable choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain showed his favor for the politics of grand gesture. If he had to do what was expected of him, satiate the box-checkers on the right, he would do it with a wicked grin, choosing a woman with a Jack London résumé, a surprise from the last frontier.

In his long career in Washington, D.C., however, McCain's embrace of the dramatic tradition in conservatism has also caused him many problems on the right. Nearly three decades after the Reagan Revolution, conservatism has become the one true church in the Republican Party, and woe to him who dares to depart from orthodoxy. McCain's congenital need to provoke, which drew him to conservatism in the first place, alienates him from the movement of today. And while the electorate is eager for change—witness the 80,000 who crowded Invesco Field for Barack Obama last week—after eight traumatic Bush years, voters are wary of more bold gestures from the right. At the start of the fall campaign, McCain's greatest challenge may be convincing both conservatives and the country that they need more drama in their lives.

Modern conservatism has always viewed itself as a romantic struggle. Buckley, the founder of The National Review and the Adam of the modern conservative movement, learned rebellion in the cradle. As a boy at the Millbrook School in Dutchess County, N.Y., he accused a teacher of suppressing his freedom of speech, and in his first book, "God and Man at Yale," he attacked the effete, erudite tradition from which he sprung. With Goldwater, who once threatened to lob a nuclear warhead at the bathroom of the Kremlin, he laid out the simple tenets of the conservative movement: respect for the individual, mistrust for government, belief in America's uniquely good and enlightened position in the world. The founders and their disciples viewed themselves as lonely warriors, waging an improbable, epic struggle against the Great Satan of the state, and they marshaled breathless language to make their case. "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," Ronald Reagan told a television audience in the closing days of Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign. "We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness."

Nearly a decade later, Reagan would capture McCain's attention, in equally dramatic fashion. In McCain's telling, he first learned about the conservative governor of California not as a face on a television or movie screen, but as a tap on the wall—a message passed from other prisoners of war, waiting out long captivity in the hands of the Viet Cong. This governor, McCain's fellow prisoners told him, had taken up the plight of America's POWs as his special cause. McCain would remember this governor and seek out a friendship with him after he was released from prison and returned to the United States. But at first for McCain, Reagan was an object of faith and hope, a commanding figure in the imagination if not in real life.

Conservatism would find its greatest triumph in the Reagan presidency, when the former actor captured the nation's imagination as well. Reagan's revolution worked, politically, by presenting ideology as a choice between compelling images: malaise versus Morning in America, the Evil Empire versus the City on a Hill. Reagan could summon all of Goldwater and Buckley's marginalized indignation ("I paid for this microphone!"), but his features would quickly subside into a winning smile. Young people who today think of conservatism as bald white men in boring suits miss the subversive energy of the Reagan Revolution. Think of Alex P. Keaton, the iconic young conservative character on the Reagan-era sitcom "Family Ties": clean-cut in Brooks Brothers sweaters, but so much more complicated, unpredictable and interesting than his earnest, PBS-watching parents.

Congressman John McCain witnessed Reagan's conservatism of broad strokes and sought to emulate it. When he speaks of the Reagan era, and he speaks of it often, he pays the passing, necessary homage to Reagan's tax cuts and his hostility to government programs. But the twinkle in his eye comes only when he describes Reagan's grand vision for America in the world. McCain cherished Reagan's "eloquently stated belief in America's national greatness, his trust in our historical exceptionalism, the shining city on the hill he evoked so often."

The majority of McCain's career, however, would come after Reagan had left the city's streets. Without their transcendent leader, conservatives demanded fealty to his legacy, down to the smallest detail. Rebellious spirit was not tolerated, let alone revered. Even Goldwater, the father of the movement, would prove insufficiently pure for the new enforcers. From his Arizona retirement, the old bomb-thrower's libertarianism hardened, and he loudly voiced his support for abortion and gay rights. He bemoaned the new prominence of the Christian right in the new party, prompting an effort by social conservatives to write him out of the movement's history. McCain, who'd finally forged a friendship with Goldwater, defended his old hero's honor.

But McCain was in no position to vouch for anyone on the right. The conservative litany of McCain offenses in the Clinton and Bush years is lengthy and well known: his vote to close the gun-show loophole, his sponsorship of the patient's bill of rights, his support of stem-cell research and perhaps the most flagrant, his vote against the Bush tax cuts. But it wasn't just the voting record. What made McCain truly loathsome to conservatives was the lack of logic to his rebellions. One moment he would chastise party elders for too stringently clinging to orthodoxy, the next he would lash out when they compromised conservative principle in the name of political expediency. He was enraged, for example, when his party leadership brokered a regulation-heavy deal on telecommunications in 1996. Announcing that he would be the sole Republican vote against the bill, he summoned the morally indignant rhetoric of Goldwater. "In the face of principle we now compromise," he said. He mocked his leadership's approach: "Let us have a bad deal … it is better than no deal at all." And yet, in the eyes of the right, he was all too eager to trade away conservative orthodoxy when he ardently backed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill. The only constant with John McCain, conservative leaders believed, was the glee he took in defying them. In his 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he didn't just express disgust for the Christian right by calling Jerry Falwell an "agent of intolerance," he didn't just proclaim "we are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson"—he did it in Virginia Beach, Va., Robertson's hometown.

This year McCain has finally assumed the leadership of the conservative movement by disavowing the same rebellious tradition he once cherished. To date, in his challenge to Barack Obama, he has run an entirely conventional conservative Republican campaign. His aides have attempted to channel his combative spirit toward his Democratic opponent, whom they paint as an out-of-touch elitist. But while the attacks may prove effective, at the end of the Bush-Rove era, they hardly feel subversive, dramatic or new. What's worse, McCain seems now to only show off his interest in manly drama to the one group of conservatives who still devour it, neoconservatives, even though their policy aims directly contradict the world view of Buckley and Goldwater. Even the choice of Sarah Palin, a reliable social conservative and tax-cutter, suggests a depressing truth about John McCain: he is less interested in being dramatic for the sake of principle than he is in being dramatic for drama's sake.

Still, there are signs of the old conservative spirit in John McCain, even if it can be glimpsed only in that eye twinkle that comes across his face at the mention of Reagan's name. Reagan, after all, tapped the great conservative tradition of clear, dramatic imagery to govern in a manner that embraced complexity and compromise. He did not, as some of the curators of his legacy would have it, insist on ideological purity from the people who worked for him; rather, he was sufficiently confident in his own principles to encourage dissent among his underlings. He cut taxes in 1981, but he raised them in 1983 and 1984. He championed the pro-life cause, but he never worked to produce a significant piece of pro-life legislation. He knew when to hold on to his principles no matter what and when to bow to the realities of governing. Perhaps, for all his bowing and scraping to the loyalty-enforcers on the right today, McCain still remembers Reagan's skill for distinguishing between big principles and small compromises. Perhaps a McCain presidency might even revive the conservative movement—by taking up the cause of the long-embattled Goldwater wing against the ascendant Christian right—and return it to its dramatic, dynamic roots. What a true and thrilling surprise that would turn out to be.