Elizabeth Drew's 'Citizen McCain': Whither now?

Six May Novels

May 12, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN STAFF

Citizen McCain, by Elizabeth Drew. Simon & Schuster. 181 pages, $23.

John McCain is all dressed up with no place to go. His popularity is running as high these days as it did two years ago, when his "Straight Talk Express" bus stopped rolling. That's rare for a defeated presidential candidate. Just ask Al Gore.

But the Arizona senator turns 66 this summer, with some nagging health problems that cloud his indefatigability. More to the point, the man he took on in the Republican primaries, George W. Bush, is now a popular wartime president.

Until fairly recently, there was a sense that McCain might, somehow, find his way back into another presidential campaign. The necessary pieces are in place - including a political action committee and a small think tank - should he choose to run again. He's never completely ruled out that option, and twitchy White House strategists haven't stopped glancing nervously over their shoulders at him.

Sept. 11 did not, as some predicted at the time, change "everything" in America. But it certainly changed Washington, and it almost surely crushed, forever, McCain's dream of commanding the nation from the Oval Office. There seems no real basis for him to challenge Bush now. In 2008, when Bush wouldn't be an impediment, McCain would be well into his 70s.

Last year, McCain used his heightened celebrity from the presidential campaign to make a renewed push for political reform. Elizabeth Drew's book is a worshipful narrative of that effort.

The title plays on Orson Welles' unsparing movie portrait of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing mogul. But this slight book is anything but brutal, and it's not much of an in-depth portrait. There isn't a single reference, for instance, to the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal (which snared McCain and helped turn him toward reform).

Reverting to a style that made her famous as a New Yorker writer in the 1970s and 1980s, Drew records in stenographic detail last year's congressional debate on campaign finance and McCain's efforts to promote himself and his agenda. But she abruptly drops those subjects after Sept. 11.

It's as though she sensed that one more remarkable chapter in McCain's biography had been snuffed out by the terrorist attacks. Congress' final approval of the reform measure, a milestone in McCain's career, is noted in an afterword.

Still, Citizen McCain is a valuable chronicle of a landmark legislative battle in the Senate. The new law's impact is likely to be much less sweeping than the rhetoric on both sides of the debate implied. But it does represent the first successful effort in decades to restrict the influence of big money in politics.

When Bush grudgingly signed the bill, he did so in private, giving no advance notice to its main author (McCain was informed of the signing by a low-level administration aide). A public ceremony, Bush's advisers said later, would only have riled his conservative base, which opposed the bill. Others saw Bush's move as an obvious snub, a small-minded effort to deny his former rival a well-earned moment of glory. In Washington, the controversy was a big story for a day. Beyond the Beltway, it barely caused a ripple.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and the Dallas Times Herald. He has worked as a reporter in the capital for almost 20 years. He helped cover Senate hearings and the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns.

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