The McCain Meltdown?–Keep Your Fingers Crossed

If polling trends in “Super Tuesday” primary states continue, it looks like John McCain is a goner – and not a moment too soon. He is way behind in Ohio, where he and his advisors said they had a fighting chance, and falling fast in the two delegate-rich states of New York and California. Barring some major misstep on Bush’s part – and given the way the campaign has been run this far, I wouldn’t rule it out – it looks like the center, although severely shaken, has held. At least for the moment. So it turns out that the coming implosion of the Bush campaign – the title of a column I wrote before the New Hampshire primary – will have to wait for the fall.GIVE THANKS

Oh well, there’s plenty of time. Meanwhile, we can all give thanks – while keeping our fingers crossed – that the McCain phenomenon seems to have exhausted itself, like a rained-out storm cloud that temporarily blocked the sun. But that was an awfully close call, if indeed the danger has passed. For there is growing evidence that Camille Paglia’s initial impression of the man was right on the mark:

“The TV camera does not lie: Just as it showed from the get-go that ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a nervous shifty, sweaty, petulant mental adolescent, so has it exposed McCain over time as a seething nest of proto-fascist impulses. Despite his recent flurry of radiant, P.R.-coached grins, McCain has the weirdly wary and over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel (from Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, ‘High Anxiety.'”


But if only a few instinctively picked up the scent of this presidential disaster waiting to happen, and soon the general public and even some of the smitten punditocracy began to draw back from the sight of the hyperventilating McCain. Close observers of the candidate swore they could hear a tick-tick-ticking, whenever his thunderous rhetoric was stilled (which wasn’t often) and it wasn’t long before McCain went ballistic, smearing poor old affable Jerry Falwell as a “dangerous extremist” who believed that President Clinton had people murdered – and even labeling the milquetoast moderate Dubya a “Robertson Republican.” (Say what?) This backfired in the next round, resulting in Bush victories in Virginia and Washington (although they’re still counting the ballots in the latter), but McCain refused to back down: instead, he got more vehement, and declared that Robertson and Falwell are “evil.” No wonder he is known to his fellow Senators as “McNasty” – although, given his performance on the Michael Reagan radio show, McNutty is more like it. . . .


There were rumors that Nancy Reagan was in the McCain camp, but Matt Drudge informed us that an endorsement had been ruled out. At any rate, her son was also rumored to have been partial to the Arizona Senator’s campaign, and was on February 9, on the line and trying his damnedest to give the candidate a platform. Reagan’s radio program reaches millions of California’s conservative Republican voters: a good interview, in which he would have a chance to burnish his conservative credentials, would have at least partially offset the pounding he had been taking from Rush Limbaugh on a daily basis. But there was something distinctly strange, from the very beginning, in the chemistry of this by-now-infamous exchange. After a few initial pleasantries, Reagan asked a question that troubles many conservatives, and that is “what kind of Supreme Court Justices would President McCain appoint?” A perfectly fair question, and one that Reagan phrased in precisely the way many of McCain’s conservative critics were: would his campaign chairman, Warren Rudman,

be in such a position in a McCain administration to appoint justices like Judge Souter to the bench as was done during the Bush administration back in the 1980s”?

McCain: Uh, Warren Rudman did not appoint Judge Souter. Uh, President Bush did. Remember, he was the president.

R: “Yes, but …”

M: “Second of all, Warren Rudman is a fine, decent man. He has served his country in the Korean War, attorney general of his state, and a senator that was highly respected. Uh, it was President Bush that appointed Justice Souter. Warren Rudman is 70 …”

R: “Right, but Warren Rudman … “

M: “Let me finish please, could I finish? “


McCain then rants on for a few more minutes about how Rudman is too old to be a factor, he’s too ill, he’s not interested, “and I resent enormously phone call that were made by Pat Robertson saying that he was a vicious bigot. I think that one might be worth talking about as well.” Poor Mike Reagan – here he had primed his audience for an interview with the inspiring war hero, the white-haired hero on an even whiter horse, and less than ten minutes into the interview McCain had clearly begun to unravel. From that point it was downhill all the way.

R: “Senator, senator, senator, senator, I’m not … senator …”

M: “I asked you, Michael, if I could finish. Can I finish?”

R: “But you did finish, senator …”

M: “Can I finish? Can I finish? Yes or no?”

R: “What else do you have to say?”

M: “Can I finish or not? I mean, otherwise . . .”

R: “Go ahead.”


Reagan let McCain rant on about how Pat Robertson and the “agents of intolerance” were out to get him for a few minutes, until, it seemed, the Senator had gotten it out of his system. Moving right along, Reagan breathed an audible sigh of relief and tried to salvage the interview, giving the candidate a chance to shine:

R: “All right. Next question. Education. Big issue. When we compare to other industrial nations, we earn – America’s children – routinely test near the bottom, so what about your plans for a better-educated child here in America. What is the McCain plan?”

M: “Choice, uh … By the way, before we go into that, does it disturb you that Pat Robertson would call up people and say that Warren Rudman is a vicious bigot? I’d like you to talk about that.”

R: “No, senator, I … Senator, no. Senator, because let me tell you . . .”

M: “Let me tell you – let me tell you . . .”

Then there was just a dial tone: the Senator had hung up.


The closer McCain got to the Oval Office, the more bombastic and bizarre he became. Like a werewolf exposed to the light of the full moon, the white knight of reform and high-mindedness was transformed into a ranting raving monomaniacal monster. An astonished Michael Reagan, who had been all ready to fill out his absentee ballot for McCain, could only say “goodbye, Senator McCain, goodbye. You know something? I’m ripping this up. You lost my vote.” And a lot of others, besides: not only those who were listening, but all across the country as the story got on the wires and MSNBC ran the low points on the air, previously mesmerized McCaniacs woke up as if from a dream.


The real John McCain had finally come out of the closet, and revealed his true self for all the world to see – and it was frankly scary. Before getting into his anti-Robertson jag, McCain had been going around claiming that his was the voice of maturity, and that he was the “grown-up” candidate, at least compared to the boyish Dubya. But if Bush seems curiously adolescent, then this interview showed McCain as truly infantile. Any bona fide grown-up listening to McCain’s on-air crackup had to be asking himself or herself: Is this the guy whose finger is going to be on the nuclear trigger for the next four years?


Can’t you just see him hanging up the red phone on Vladimir Putin, screaming “Let me tell you, let me tell you.” – and then giving the order to launch?


Inside of less than fifteen minutes, Michael Reagan had gone from admiration to calling the candidate “a messenger of hate” – it was a moment that marked the beginning of the McCain meltdown, although inside the cocoon of the “Straight Talk Express,” the media and its chosen candidate merrily dismissed all signs of trouble. Of course, we knew McCain was in trouble before the disastrous February 29 interview with Reagan, when word that his support among the neoconservatives was waning, hit the front page of the Washington Post: Bill Bennett, who had earlier praised him to the skies and done everything but formally endorsed, was now backtracking rather rapidly. Only a few days had passed since Bennett had enthusiastically declaimed that “You can make the call right now that it is pretty clear that John McCain is a better bet for winning the presidency for the Republicans than George Bush.” Forty-eight hours later, the right call was clearly dead wrong. “This is rhetorical overkill not appropriate to a man running for president of the United States,” declared Bennett, and to say that Robertson and Falwell are “evil” is a “very odd thing.” Asked to speculate on what, how, or why the campaign had gone wrong, Bennett replied: “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not a psychiatrist.” As long as McCain seemed to be winning, Bennett and his neocon friends – including Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Tucker Carlson, and the usual suspects, plus Gary Bauer, their Religious Right front-man – were willing and even eager to go along for the ride. It didn’t matter how crazy he was – just as long as nobody noticed.


With Bill Kristol as the grand strategist and ideologist of the campaign, making the Sunday morning talk show circuit and spinning the myth of McCain, the neocons seemed to have a perceptible influence on their man. In a speech McCain even used the phrase “national greatness,” and called for heroic self-sacrifice for the good of the nation, in an echo of a famous Weekly Standard manifesto by David Brooks – which disdained conservatives for being too “anti-government” and longed for the glory days of the bombastic bully Theodore Roosevelt. Bennett even joined the liberal media in piling on Bush during the Bob Jones University fracas. The Washington Post gleefully reported Bennett’s considered opinion that Bush had not only made a mistake by failing to make the obligatory condemnation of Bob Jones University’s ban on interracial dating, but also by failing to repudiate the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson, who had dared to criticize the politics and published writings of campaign chairman Rudman. Dubya “works two years building a ‘compassionate conservative’ image, but in South Carolina he looks like not only a conventional conservative but the worst kind of caricature, a liberal caricature, of what a conservative is,” said Bennett – and he ought to know. He has no trouble visualizing the contours of that caricature, because this ex-Democrat supporter of Hubert Humphrey, along with the New York branch of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, retain the political correct attitudes of their liberal-lefty-Shachtmanite youth.


Bennett’s disenchantment coincided not only with the latter stages of the McCaniac mental meltdown, but also with McCain’s Virginia loss, and the perceived loss in Washington state. In the New York Post, John Podhoretz opined that “those of us who thought McCain was the right man for the job will be eating some well-deserved crow.” How quickly they turn. While nobody likes a loser, the neocons like them least of all. This is aside from the fact that, in the their view, such people as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell may be kooky, but to call them “evil” is really going over the line. It is one thing to rap the knuckles of “extremists” once in a while, but endangering the Republican coalition and opening it up to the depredations of Pat Buchanan is quite another. If nothing else, the neocons have a clear sense of who are their enemies.


Buchanan is reportedly ready to “take aim especially at Bush, his former fellow Republican, for being ‘basically a nice fellow, but clueless” on foreign policy issues, an area of expertise for Buchanan. ‘They think they’ve shed a lot of blood in that Republican Party lately,’ Buchanan said. ‘But you wait ’til we get ahold of old W.'” Oh boy, it won’t be much longer now, and I can hardly wait!


Perot, contrary to the “buzz” in the McCainiac media, is not about to step into the race: his family is adamantly opposed, and Ross himself has made no move toward initiating the petition process: in a few days he must sign a declaration of intent to file petitions in several states, and his aides report no move to meet the deadline. Meanwhile, Reform Party Secretary Jim Mangia has managed to generate more newspaper stories about his petition drive to draft Perot than the number of names on his petition.


The same media that built up McCain – and almost succeeded in nominating him over the heads of the GOP Establishment – is now telling us that the Reform Party is a bunch of fractious wackos who can’t even decide where they are going to hold their national convention. The followers of former Reform Party chairman Jack Gargan and Jesse Ventura, if not put up to their destructive antics by interested parties, are at the very least following a script that might just as well have been written by the party’s worst enemies. But these are the birth pangs and not the death rattle of the Reformers. It is the Republican Party that is dying, as the recent acrimonious campaign made all too clear, and divided against itself. Buchanan says that we are in the midst of a “de-alignment,” and that what we are witnessing in the turmoil of the GOP is the ongoing process of the “disintegration of the two major parties. We hope to gather together some of those pieces and put together a plurality in November.”


A big piece of the Buchanan coalition consists of those, on the Right and the Left, who see our criminal policy global interventionism as an albatross hung ’round the neck of every American – a financial and a moral burden that can no longer be sustained or excused. The starvation of a generation of Iraqi children, which Madeleine Albright has publicly declared is “worth it” – the military occupation of the Balkans, which is threatening to explode – the rising reaction to American hegemonism in Russia, China, and around the world: these are Buchanan’s issues, the real issues that face us as we enter the new millennium, because only he addresses them. In a campaign which promises to consist of a contest to see which candidate is more politically correct, Buchanan will bring the important issues, the presidential issues, and place them at the center of the debate. That, in and of itself, will be a revolutionary act, and alone justifies the campaign no matter how many votes he gets.


And so it’s adios, McCain – thank God and Greyhound he’s (almost) gone! We can all of us breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. No need to start building that bomb shelter. Mad Dog McCain won’t get anywhere near that red phone. But don’t believe for a minute that the GOP crackup will end with the Philadelphia convention. As Bush moves rapidly Leftward – or, as the pundits put it, “toward the Center” – he will lose much of his conservative base as he morphs into a McCain replicant, bibbling about “reform” – of what, the nation’s prep schools? – and bragging about his “multicultural” credentials. Don’t think for a moment that the excitement has ended: this is going to be one helluva campaign season – and the fun has just begun.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].