Jan 19, 2000

WHAT A GUY! The anti-Clinton. A downed fighter pilot who survived a 5 1/2-year nightmare of beatings, solitary confinement and disease in North Vietnamese prison camps.

His body will always be twisted by the torture he endured. But his spirit isn’t. That’s what astounds you as he climbs on the Straight Talk Express at 7 o’clock on a New Hampshire morning. It’s not just the radiance of John McCain’s smile sunshine wakening the sleepy journalists but his exuberance in their company, his zestful anticipation of their grilling as he settles into his generous swivel chair on the campaign bus.

Unlike life with Bill Clinton, where spinmeisters meet the press, a McCain presidency could be a perpetual news conference. Riding out of the west, a hero in a silver bus, taking straight, talking funny, talking patriotism: No wonder those hardened reporters’ hearts are all aflutter.

What a guy! Almost too good to be true. Having just finished his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” in which the senator from Arizona depicts all the hells he suffered (“I would find myself trussed up and left for hours in ropes, my biceps bound tightly with several loops to cut off my circulation and the end of the rope cinched behind my back, pulling my shoulders and elbows unnaturally close together”), you can’t expect anything but an enfeebled shell of a man. Certainly not this happy warrior of the presidential primaries, leaning forward eagerly as the bus speeds north, all but ordering the temporarily closed eye of the ABC-News camera lens to wake up and smell the coffee.

He sips his, impatient for the momentarily quiescent media to come on, people to keep hurling their questions at him.

He’s not just accessible. He’s a boon companion. Vital. Real, albeit larger than life. John McCain is so dynamic the other candidates-stilted Gore, cerebral Bradley, careful-of-everything-you- say- so-you-don’t-screw-up Bush, pompous Hatch, goofy Forbes -are zombies in comparison.

What a guy! He’s got what America wants. Character! No waffling, no lying like you-know- who. John McCain is Mr. Mea Culpa. Read his book, see him on TV, hear him answer the questions of the mesmerized citizens of Bow, New Hampshire, in an auditorium that smells of aftershave and wet wool. You sense an undercurrent of sorrow in the man. Not at his lot in life. At himself.

The senator from Arizona is a human being who is perpetually proclaiming his failings, not seeking to cover them up. It’s his fault, not the Naval Academy’s, for his ending up fifth from the bottom in his class. No excuses: He was a jerk. He was a boozer, a womanizer. He still feels shame that as a POW, after four days of continuous beatings including the re-fracturing of a broken arm, laying in his own blood and waste, he violated the Code of Conduct and confessed to “war crimes” he didn’t commit and made a “feeble” attempt at suicide.

He divulges whenever he’s asked, and sometimes when he isn’t, that the sole reason for the dissolution of his first marriage was his “serious mistakes and doing the wrong thing.” He reveals that his involvement as one of the senators in the Keating Five S&L scandal was the worst mistake of his adult life.

Wouldn’t a man like him make a great president?

Not in my view.

Here’s why. The journalists who revel in his company have indeed conceded he is somewhat conservative, but they have rarely delved into his right-wing record or interrogated him with true due diligence. Not only is he amusing, charming and disarmingly direct, but they cannot seem to bring themselves to attack him, to hurt him any more than he’s been hurt. They feel his pain: He suffered enough in Vietnam. He’s hard enough on himself. Let’s not savage him. Ergo, if he hasn’t gotten a free ride by the press, he’s certainly gotten a damn hefty discount.

So if there were a contest for American Hero, he’d have my vote. Also for Best Display of Grace under Pressure While a Prisoner of War. But not for president. Al- though he is a maverick on some issues like campaign finance and tax reform, John McCain is also a dyed-in-the-wool man of the right who voted for every single item in Newt’s Contract With America.

Check out his opposition to gun control. Sure, he’s for trigger locks, but he’s also voted as if he were in the NRA’s pocket, including votes against the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill. He’s voted for all proposals that limit women’s access to abortions. He’s voted against funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Public Broadcasting. He’s an admirer of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

What a guy? Though he fought against legislation that would prohibit job discrimination against homosexuals and was a guest speaker to raise money for a 1993 an- tigay rights initiative in Oregon, he does not appear to be “a thousand percent anti- gay,” as Rep. Barney Frank from Massachusetts has pronounced; he did, after all, say the party of Lincoln should be more open to homosexuals and other minorities.

Nevertheless, relatively few print and TV journalists covered his grossly homophobic (to say nothing of grossly scurrilous) crack he made at a Republican Senate fund-raiser. Oh, they alluded to it, but it is precisely that sort of crude jest that has demolished lesser careers in sports and politics: Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, to take just one example, called it a “disgusting jape,” but spared her paper’s readers the discomfort, no, the shock of reading it. (The “joke” was a riddle. Q: Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? A: Because her father is Janet Reno.)

True, this one remark does not equal Bill Clinton’s stupid, arrogant and prevaricating conduct in L’affaire Lewinsky, but if we were spared nothing then, why now? To protect the younger and older Ms. Clintons and the attorney general? To shield themselves and the public from having to answer the disturbing question: What kind of an ass would get up in front of an audience and say such a thing?

Or to keep the vibrant, engaging, newsworthy John McCain on the Straight Talk Express and in their pages and on their networks?

They want a hero. Well, so do we. So let’s salute John McCain as a brave soldier. As, often, the most congenial presidential candidate since JFK. But let’s not cover our ears to guard against hearing straight talk that would make our would-be hero, our national charmer, sound not just coarse, but bigoted. Let’s not forget that all his revelations of drinking and womanizing might say something about his character now as well as then.

And, above all, let’s remember that talk -straight or bent-is not action. So absolutely look how this guy with the dazzling smile behaved in a North Vietnamese prison. But also check out how this presidential contender comported himself before a friendly audience of Republicans-as well as how he voted in U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

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