A lazy, hazy myth has arisen out of the mists of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Across the pan-Atlantic press, the grizzled 71-year-old Vietnam vet, John McCain, is being billed as the Republican liberals can live with. He is "a bipartisan progressive"", "a principled hard liberal", "a decent man" - in the words of liberal newspapers. His fragile new frontrunner status as we go into Super Tuesday is being seen as something to cautiously welcome, a kick to the rotten Republican establishment.
But the truth is that McCain is the candidate we should most fear. Not only is he to the right of Bush on a whole range of subjects, he is also the Republican candidate most likely to dispense with Hillary or Barack.
McCain is third-generation navy royalty, raised from a young age to be a senior figure in the Armed Forces, like his father and grandfather before him. He was sent to one of the most elite boarding schools in America, then to a naval academy where he ranked 894th out of 899 students in ability. He used nepotism to get ahead: when he was rejected by the National War College, he used his father's contacts with the Secretary of the Navy to make them reconsider. He then swiftly married the heiress to a multi-million dollar fortune.
Right up to his twenties, he remained a strikingly violent man, "ready to fight at the drop of a hat", according to his biographer Robert Timberg. This rage seems to be at the core of his personality: describing his own childhood, McCain has written: "At the smallest provocation I would go off into a mad frenzy, and then suddenly crash to the floor unconscious. When I got angry I held my breath until I blacked out."
But he claims he was transformed by his experiences in Vietnam - a war he still defends as "noble" and "winnable", if only it had been fought harder. (More than three million Vietnamese died; how much harder could it be?) His plane was shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi, and he was captured and tortured for five years. To this day, he cannot lift his arms high enough to comb his own hair.
On his release, he used his wife's fortune to run to as a Republican senator. He was a standard-issue Reaganite corporate Republican - until the Keating Five corruption scandal consumed him. In 1987, it was revealed that McCain, along with four other senators, had taken huge campaign donations from a fraudster called Charles Keating. In return they pressured government regulators not to look too hard into Keating's affairs, allowing him to commit even more fraud. McCain later admitted: "I did it for no other reason than I valued [Keating's] support."
McCain took the only course that could possibly preserve his reputation: he turned the scandal into a debate about the political system, rather than his own personal corruption. He said it showed how "we need to drive the special interests out of Washington", and became a high-profile campaigner for campaign finance reform. But privately, his behaviour hasn't changed much. For example, in 2000 he lobbied federal regulators hard on behalf of a major campaign contributor, Paxson Communications, in an act the regulators spluttered was "highly unusual". He has never won an election without outspending his opponent.
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But McCain has distinguished himself most as an über-hawk on foreign policy. To give a brief smorgasbord of his views: at a recent rally, he sang "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann". He says North Korea should be threatened with "extinction".
McCain has mostly opposed using US power for humanitarian goals, jeering at proposals to intervene in Rwanda or Bosnia - but he is very keen to use it for great power imperialism. He learnt this philosophy from his father and his granddad Slew, who fought in the Philippine wars at the turn of the 20th century, where he was part of a mission to crush the local resistance to the US invasion. They did it by forcing the entire population from their homes at gunpoint into "protection zones", and gunning down anybody over the age of ten who was found outside them. Today, McCain dreamily describes this as "an exotic adventure" which his grandfather "generally enjoyed".
Then McCain's father, John, led the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, at a time when there was a conflict on the Caribbean island. On one side, there were forces loyal to Juan Bosch, the democratically elected left-wing President who was committed to land redistribution and helping the poor. On the other side, there were forces who had overthrown the elected government and looked nostalgically to the playboy tyranny of Rafael Trujillo. John McCain Snr intervened to ensure the supporters of the democratic government were crushed, bragging that it taught the natives "how to behave themselves". He saw this as part of a wider mission, where the US would take over Britain's role as a "world empire".
These beliefs drive McCain today. He brags he would be happy for US troops to remain in Iraq for 100 years, and declares: "I'm not at all embarrassed of my friendship with Henry Kissinger; I'm proud of it." His most thorough biographer - and recent supporter - Matt Welch concludes: "McCain's programme for fighting foreign wars would be the most openly militaristic and interventionist platform in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt... [it] is considerably more hawkish than anything George Bush has ever practised." With him as president, we could expect much more aggressive destabilisation of Venezuela and Bolivia - and more.
So why do so many nice liberals have a weak spot for McCain? Well, to his credit, he doesn't hate immigrants: he proposed a programme to legalise the 12 million undocumented workers in the US. He sincerely opposes torture, as a survivor of it himself. He has apologised for denying global warming and now advocates a cap on greenhouse gas emissions - but only if China and India can also be locked into the system. He is somewhat uncomfortable with the religious right (while supporting a ban on abortion and gay marriage). It is a sign of how far to the right the Republican Party has drifted that these are considered signs of liberalism, rather than basic humanity.
Yet these sprinklings of sanity - onto a very extreme programme - are enough for a superficial, glib press to present McCain as "bipartisan" and "centrist". Will this be enough to put white hair into the White House? At the moment, he has considerably higher positive ratings than Hillary Clinton, and beats her in some match-up polls. If we don't start warning that the Real McCain is not the Real McCoy, we might sleepwalk into four more years of Republicanism.
© 2008 The Independent