The Tragic Irony of John McCain's Faustian Bargain

Watching a true American hero hang a For Sale sign on his principles is a profoundly sad thing.
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A lot of people are angry at John McCain -- and with good reason. His contemptible performance on this week's Meet the Press was enough to make any sentient person's blood boil.

For a dose of this ire, check out georgia10 at Kos who proclaims "the death of McCain the Maverick", Paul Krugman who raises the notion that McCain has become "a cynical political opportunist", Cenk Uygur who says McCain "is a shell of his former self." and Rachel Sklar who slams his "transparent political backtracking."

But I come here not to condemn John McCain but to weep for him.

Watching a true American hero hang a For Sale sign on his principles is a profoundly sad thing. Especially for me.

I've long admired, respected -- indeed loved -- John McCain. I've written many columns about him citing his courage and integrity, traveled with him on the Straight Talk Express, been to his home and met his wonderful family, and introduced him as the keynote speaker at the 2000 Shadow Convention I helped organize by calling him "the most prominent voice for reform within the political system." In fact, I am still on the advisory committee of his Reform Institute.

Even though we've frequently disagreed on issues, I have always been impressed with the unfailingly above-board way he has navigated the often choppy waters of political leadership. Until now.

Back in December, following another dispiriting McCain appearance on Meet the Press in which he repeatedly provided cover for Bush's woeful mishandling of Iraq, I wrote: "The big question now -- a question left unanswered on today's show -- is: which is the real McCain? The captain of the Straight Talk Express, or the one who showed up today trying to have it both ways -- expressing just enough gentle criticism to keep his 'maverick' bona fides, while at the same time assuring Bush's right wing supporters they have nothing to worry about?"

Sadly, that big question is unanswered no more. McCain has clearly convinced himself that the only way he can become president is to sell his soul -- making a pact with the devils of the religious right and turning into what Jim Pinkerton dubbed "a born-again Bushophile".

There he was on Sunday, disavowing his 2000 claim that Jerry Falwell is "an agent of intolerance," offering the very telling insight that "the Christian right has a major role to play in the Republican Party" because "they're so active, and their followers are." In other words: there are votes in them thar pews so principles be damned. Liberty University commencement, here I come!

McCain was equally transparent in his repeated efforts to carry water for Bush. He backed the president's handling of Iraq -- and even went so far as to call Bush's recent speeches on the war "fairly eloquent" (is this the first time Bush and eloquence have been linked, other than by Harriet Miers-types?). He told us he "applauds" the president's efforts in Iran. And he shamelessly turned his back on his powerful explanation for being one of only two Republican Senators to vote against Bush's 2001 tax cuts. Here's what he said then: "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief." Now, when asked to defend his recent vote to extend these same cuts, McCain offered the GOP boilerplate: "I do not believe in tax increases."

There can be no doubt: McCain's blatant desire for the White House has caused him to abandon the Straight Talk Express and hop on board the Bullshit Express. Talk about "pimping your ride."

I find it deeply ironic that, at a time when voters are desperately longing for a political leader with authenticity, a man who defined the authenticity brand has now decided to screw with the formula.

The New McCain is the political equivalent of New Coke -- and will meet with the same disastrous results.

It's worse than a Faustian bargain. At least Faust got what he desired in exchange for his soul. McCain, in giving up the core of who he is -- as a man and as a leader -- may actually be destroying his chances of getting what he so desires.

The saddest thing is not how McCain has betrayed us -- it's how he has betrayed himself.

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