McCain and the 'Maverick' Label

Sens. Lindsay Graham, left, and John McCain. Alex Wong / Getty Images (left); Cheryl Senter / AP

It's no secret that Sen. John McCain has a love-hate relationship with the "maverick" moniker. But thanks to this week's New Yorker, we can add another emotion to the senator's complicated feelings about the label: jealousy. That is, jealously over other senators who might try to take the maverick title as their own.

First, let's review the history of the maverick flap. During two decades in public service, McCain built a reputation for reaching across the aisle, seeking compromise on immigration, and lending his name to landmark campaign-finance legislation. For a time during his 2008 presidential bid, his campaign embraced a narrative portraying him and running mate Sarah Palin as "The Original Mavericks." Palin repeatedly referred to McCain as such. "Maverick" became virtually synonymous with the Arizona senator.

But this past April, worried about a primary challenge from a conservative talk-radio host (whom McCain ended up routing), the senior senator from Arizona told NEWSWEEK, "I never considered myself a maverick." As liberal critics predictably skewered him for that remark, the conventional narrative about McCain became the story of a man torn by a battle to retain his seat. No doubt proud of his bipartisan past, he was gritting his teeth and shirking it now, pandering to conservatives in order to preserve his future.

Yet months earlier, according to Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece about the failure of climate-change legislation this year, McCain became "enraged" when a December 2009 article on Time's Web site passed the nickname on to Sen. Lindsay Graham, whom the headline called the NEW GOP MAVERICK IN THE SENATE. Writes Lizza:

Graham told colleagues that McCain had called him and yelled at him, incensed that he was stealing the maverick mantle. "After that Graham story came out, McCain completely stopped talking to me," Jay Newton-Small, the author of the Time piece, said.

With that, McCain's statement to NEWSWEEK in April 2010 seems even more out of place. While he may have publicly shunned the maverick label, it appears likely that he's merely concealing his independent streak, keeping it under wraps until he can secure another six-year Senate term. At the very least, his jealousy of Graham indicates McCain does, at least on some level, value his maverick reputation. Since it appears McCain will win a fifth term easily, here's hoping he reassumes the maverick mantle come 2011. The dreadfully deadlocked Senate could use one.

McCain and the 'Maverick' Label | U.S.