We're Off To See The Wizard

The dilemma of the modern American voter is dramatized in the 1939 film in which a lion, a scarecrow, a tin man and Judy Garland follow a yellow brick road. They seek a wizard, great and powerful, who can provide courage, heart, mind and home to the wanderers. Only he can't, because he is just an ordinary man, with ordinary abilities and flaws, hiding behind larger-than-life pyrotechnics until the moment when a little dog reveals the trick and the wizard thunders, "Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain!"

This year's winner of the Wizard of Oz sweepstakes is Sen. John McCain, who in the course of the last few months has managed to convince voters that he is many things that he is not: a moderate, a centrist, perhaps even a closet liberal, a maverick who is working outside the system for a new kind of American politics, a populist Emerald City.

In fact the senator is a cookie-cutter conservative who has opposed abortion rights and gun control, affirmative-action legislation and environmental initiatives. In recent years he has voted largely in harmony with the Associated Builders and Contractors and the American Conservative Union and largely in opposition to the League of Conservation Voters and Handgun Control Inc. His Web site insists that he supports "effective, common-sense measures that help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals." But he voted against the Brady bill, the most effective common-sense measure to help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals to come before the Senate in his 14 years in that body.

On Larry King's show not long ago the senator said almost gleefully that groups of all stripes were out to get him, adding, "Look, they have got the National Right to Life people attacking me." This may have suggested McCain is pro-choice, although his legislative rating this year from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League is 0 percent. He voted against three of the five pieces of legislation the group thought were key in 1999, and was the only senator who was absent for both of the other two. On a 1998 vote to create a reserve fund to improve child care, McCain voted no; on a 1993 prohibition on the permanent immigration of people infected with the AIDS virus, he voted yes. And although he said in an interview that he would not discriminate against gay men and lesbians in his presidential appointments, as a senator he voted against prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain.

Last week McCain was endorsed by former right-wing presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a man best known for trying to build a bridge to the 19th century. So how in the world has the senator managed to charm Republicans, independents, even Democrats who believe in centrist positions and personal freedom? Partly it is because his much-ballyhooed embrace of campaign-finance reform has been a convenient cloak of progressive politics. Partly it is because of his life story. During the Vietnam War McCain was a prisoner for five years, an ordeal that is especially compelling for middle-aged men who went to college instead of to Southeast Asia and who still privately suspect they lack the right stuff.

In the senator's book it is a harrowing story: the horribly broken bones, the abusive Viet Cong, the starvation, the beatings, the humiliations. The portrait of McCain that emerges is of a brave man, certainly, but also one who is unyielding, combative and profane, a temperament invaluable for a POW but significantly less useful in a head of state. Early in the campaign this became a considerable issue when elected officials in McCain's home state of Arizona, including the governor, went on the record talking about his volcanic temper and his habit of browbeating opponents. McCain has massaged this, too, into a virtue, insisting that he is angry because he is impatient with business as usual and passionate about change.

Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain.

Voters and journalists alike have expressed admiration for McCain's candor, an imagined virtue that is also at odds with the actual record. One day he tells a newspaper editorial board that he wouldn't support the repeal of Roe v. Wade; later he backpedals and says that he would. He describes the Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina capitol as a "symbol of racism"; after the outcry he calls it "a symbol of heritage." During last week's debate he flatly denied that his campaign had produced a flier attacking his opponent; the next day he admitted it had.

There is nothing new in that sort of campaign back and fill. There is nothing new in the press leaping on the next big thing, embracing underdogs, insurgents, upsets. (It is, however, difficult to believe that if Bill Clinton had been cozy with corrupt savings and loan executive Charles Keating, as McCain was, the incident would not have been programmed into newsroom software to pop up in every story instead of conveniently evaporating.) And there is nothing new in wishful projection. There was a time when we assumed that a peanut farmer must be a happy populist, an avuncular older actor an empathetic father figure. In 1992 Bill Clinton ran as a new Democrat, a consensus-building moderate. Liberals convinced themselves that Clinton was only bluffing until victory would make deception unnecessary. He wasn't. This is still counted as a great betrayal instead of a group delusion.

Quietly some moderates say the same thing about McCain, that he will move toward the center if elected. This is not unlike the scenario in which a woman believes a man will change once married. Who McCain is, and who he will be, is amply detailed in his legislative record; this, more than his time at the Hanoi Hilton or his campaign bravado, would indicate how he would behave as president. Many voters, uninspired by his opponents, have extrapolated war heroism and a sharp tongue into something more, into leadership and a willingness to attack the status quo. But behind the curtain of the campaign is the real man. Pay attention.