Later that month on Larry King, McCain raised the specter of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction before he peddled what became Dick Cheney's favorite lie: "The Czech government has revealed meetings, contacts between Iraqi intelligence and Mohamed Atta. The evidence is very clear... . So we will have to act." On Nightline, he again flogged the Czech story and cited Iraqi defectors to claim that "there is no doubt as to [Saddam's] avid pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. That, coupled with his relations with terrorist organizations, I think, is a case that the administration will be making as we move step by step down this road."
That December, just as U.S. forces were bearing down on Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, McCain joined with five senators in an open letter to the White House. "In the interest of our own national security, Saddam Hussein must be removed from power," they insisted, claiming that there was "no doubt" that Hussein intended to use weapons of mass destruction "against the United States and its allies."
In January 2002, McCain made a fact-finding mission to the Middle East. While he was there, he dropped by a supercarrier stationed in the Arabian Sea that was dear to his heart: the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the giant floating pork project that he had driven through over President Carter's veto. On board the carrier, McCain called Iraq a "clear and present danger to the security of the United States of America." Standing on the flight bridge, he watched as fighter planes roared off, en route to Afghanistan - where Osama bin Laden had already slipped away. "Next up, Baghdad!" McCain whooped.
Over the next 15 months leading up to the invasion, McCain continued to lead the rush to war. In November 2002, Scheunemann set up a group called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq at the same address as Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. The groups worked in such close concert that at one point they got their Websites crossed. The CLI was established with explicit White House backing to sell the public on the war. The honorary co-chair of the committee: John Sidney McCain III.
In September 2002, McCain assured Americans that the war would be "fairly easy" with an "overwhelming victory in a very short period of time." On the eve of the invasion, Hardball host Chris Matthews asked McCain, "Are you one of those who holds up an optimistic view of the postwar scene? Do you believe that the people of Iraq, or at least a large number of them, will treat us as liberators?"
McCain was emphatic: "Absolutely. Absolutely."
Today, however, McCain insists that he predicted a protracted struggle from the outset. "The American people were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach," he said in August 2006, "which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking." McCain also claims he urged Bush to dump Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "I'm the only one that said that Rumsfeld had to go," he said in a January primary debate. Except that he didn't. Not once. As late as May 2004, in fact, McCain praised Rumsfeld for doing "a fine job."
Indeed, McCain's neocon makeover is so extreme that Republican generals like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft have refused to endorse their party's nominee. "The fact of the matter is his judgment about what to do in Iraq was wrong," says Richard Clarke, who served as Bush's counterterrorism czar until 2003. "He hung out with people like Ahmad Chalabi. He said Iraq was going to be easy, and he said we were going to war because of terrorism. We should have been fighting in Afghanistan with more troops to go after Al Qaeda. Instead we're at risk because of the mistaken judgment of people like John McCain."
In the end, the essential facts of John McCain's life and career - the pivotal experiences in which he demonstrated his true character - are important because of what they tell us about how he would govern as president. Far from the portrayal he presents of himself as an unflinching maverick with a consistent and reliable record, McCain has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to taking whatever position will advance his own career. He "is the classic opportunist," according to Ross Perot, who worked closely with McCain on POW issues. "He's always reaching for attention and glory."
McCain has worked hard to deny such charges. "They're drinking the Kool-Aid that somehow I have changed positions on the issues," he said of his critics at the end of August. The following month, when challenged on The View, McCain again defied those who accuse him of flip-flopping. "What specific area have I quote 'changed'?" he demanded. "Nobody can name it."
In fact, his own statements show that he has been on both sides of a host of vital issues: the Bush tax cuts, the estate tax, waterboarding, hunting down terrorists in Pakistan, kicking Russia out of the G-8, a surge of troops into Afghanistan, the GI Bill, storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, teaching intelligent design, fully funding No Child Left Behind, offshore drilling, his own immigration policy and withdrawal timelines for Iraq.
In March, McCain insisted to The Wall Street Journal that he is "always for less regulation." In September, with the government forced to bail out the nation's largest insurance companies and brokerage houses, McCain declared that he would regulate the financial industry and end the "casino culture on Wall Street." He did a similar about-face on Bush's tax cuts, opposing them when he planned to run against Bush in 2001, then declaring that he wants to make them larger - and permanent - when he needed to win the support of anti-tax conservatives this year. "It's a big flip-flop," conceded tax abolitionist Grover Norquist. "But I'm happy he's flopped."
In June of this year, McCain reversed his decades-long opposition to coastal drilling - shortly before cashing $28,500 from 13 donors linked to Hess Oil. And the senator, who only a decade ago tried to ban registered lobbyists from working on political campaigns, now deploys 170 lobbyists in key positions as fundraisers and advisers.
Then there's torture - the issue most related to McCain's own experience as a POW. In 2005, in a highly public fight, McCain battled the president to stop the torture of enemy combatants, winning a victory to require military personnel to abide by the Army Field Manual when interrogating prisoners. But barely a year later, as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign, McCain cut a deal with the White House that allows the Bush administration to imprison detainees indefinitely and to flout the Geneva Conventions' prohibitions against torture.
What his former allies in the anti-torture fight found most troubling was that McCain would not admit to his betrayal. Shortly after cutting the deal, McCain spoke to a group of retired military brass who had been working to ban torture. According to Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former deputy, McCain feigned outrage at Bush and Cheney, as though he too had had the rug pulled out from under him. "We all knew the opposite was the truth," recalls Wilkerson. "That's when I began to lose a little bit of my respect for the man and his bona fides as a straight shooter."
But perhaps the most revealing of McCain's flip-flops was his promise, made at the beginning of the year, that he would "raise the level of political dialogue in America." McCain pledged he would "treat my opponents with respect and demand that they treat me with respect." Instead, with Rove protégé Steve Schmidt at the helm, McCain has turned the campaign into a torrent of debasing negativity, misrepresenting Barack Obama's positions on everything from sex education for kindergarteners to middle-class taxes. In September, in one of his most blatant embraces of Rove-like tactics, McCain hired Tucker Eskew - one of Rove's campaign operatives who smeared the senator and his family during the 2000 campaign in South Carolina.
Throughout the campaign this year, McCain has tried to make the contest about honor and character. His own writing gives us the standard by which he should be judged. "Always telling the truth in a political campaign," he writes in Worth the Fighting For, "is a great test of character." He adds: "Patriotism that only serves and never risks one's self-interest isn't patriotism at all. It's selfishness. That's a lesson worth relearning from time to time." It's a lesson, it would appear, that the candidate himself could stand to relearn.
"I'm sure John McCain loves his country," says Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar under Bush. "But loving your country and lying to the American people are apparently not inconsistent in his view."
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