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My Friend the Loose Cannon

The essential McCain loves risk, underdogs and a trickle of water called Zebra Falls

cover image

By Michael Lewis

February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT)

I met John McCain four years ago, while writing a book about the last presidential campaign. Our relationship began along the usual journalistic lines, but it soon grew into a genuine friendship. Friendship with a politician is corrupting for a journalist, of course. The obligations of friendship are forever colliding with the truth. But there are also advantages, even literary ones, to being a fallen journalist. For one, the view is better. While the uncorrupted journalist tends to witness only the most self-conscious moments in the lives of the politicians he writes about, a friend can get right in close. Here are a few things I've seen that I believe define McCain's character:


The love of actual risk, as opposed to the idea of risk, or the illusion of risk, is rare in human beings. In politicians it is downright freakish. But McCain has it, and it affects his political life in all sorts of ways, big and small. One small but revealing example: his speech announcing his presidential candidacy contained a line that began "I have passed from a young man to an old one in the service of my country." It was a throwaway line, a line McCain couldn't have cared less about. If the speechwriter had just discreetly crossed it out, I'm sure he wouldn't have missed it.

But his advisers asked him to take it out, on the reasonable ground that they did not want to invite people to think of McCain as an old man. And that changed everything. "But it's true," he replied. "I have grown old." His advisers pleaded with him; he refused to listen. The more people told him he shouldn't say he was old, the more determined he was to say it. The truth was only part of what he suddenly loved about the line. The moment it became risky he became attached to it.


This runs very deep in McCain. He will nearly always side openly with a person who is about to be stomped by a crowd. I've seen this over and over again in his instinctive reaction to situations. I was standing with him in a parking lot late one night when his cell phone rang. It was an Arizona political reporter calling to say the Republican mayor of Tempe had just been outed as a homosexual, and was under fire from Arizona's conservative establishment. McCain didn't even think about it. He went on ad nauseam about what a good man the mayor of Tempe was, and how he personally didn't give a damn about his sexual orientation, and neither should anyone else. Until that moment I don't believe McCain had given the mayor of Tempe a second thought. Now he wanted to jump into the ring and start swinging at anyone with a bad word to say about him.


McCain began his political career as a conservative ideologue. He had the usual beliefs that anyone who wasn't a Reagan Republican was some kind of dirtball. He is ending his political career on a different note. Some of the quickest, surest political friendships he has formed are with left-leaning Democrats. In the past two years he has befriended Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, in part because they share an interest in campaign-finance reform but mainly because he admires Feingold's nerve and honesty. At the same time he has antagonized Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, mainly because he thinks he's a creep. Indeed, except on one occasion, I have been unable to detect in McCain any of the usual Republican prejudices. That exception was when I told him I was moving to Berkeley, Calif. At the thought he wrinkled up his nose as if he'd just swallowed sour milk and said, "How could anyone live there?" I suppose everyone has his breaking point.


McCain has preserved traits in adulthood that most people--and just about all important men--permit the world to beat out of them. For instance, a small boy's ability to manufacture excitement and adventure where not much exists. Every visitor to McCain's cabin in the Arizona desert has the same odd experience. At some point during the first morning, McCain waves off into the distance and announces that today "we'll take a trip down to Zebra Falls." The way he says it and then becomes worked up over the idea suggests that the guests will be shooting a veritable Niagara, halfway across the state of Arizona. The new guests return to their cabin and outfit themselves for a safari ... only to find that Zebra Falls is a trickle of water that runs over some rocks 40 yards up the creek. McCain refuses to see how small the world is. He is a 12-year-old boy in his tree house. In his mind's eye his little spread is unimaginably vast, with a great waterfall on one end.


I think McCain's definition of honor begins with a willingness to risk your neck for a cause without making a big deal about it. For a cause to be a cause it must, at least initially, be unpopular. McCain's distaste for polls grows out of his need to champion unpopular causes. He has a romantic belief that if you lead a Good Life, you will know instinctively the right thing to do, and you can lead others to that knowledge.

Michael Lewis wrote Trail Fever, a chronicle of the '96 campaign. His latest book is The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story


Cover Date: February 14, 2000

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