- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Americans, last time around, could barely decide who should be president. House and Senate control is neatly split well, maybe "neatly" isn't the best way of putting it between Republicans and Democrats. Could this be the moment for, hmmmm, John McCain?

Elizabeth Drew seems transcendently convinced of the answer to that question. She would like the readers of this, her 12th political book, to nod enthusiastically in agreement. Here is after all a public man a patriot reformer in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt who stands approximately where the public seems to stand.

"Arguably the most interesting figure in American politics," "a magnet for those tired of political double-talk," "an existentialist without the angst," and with it all, a funny-sunny guy with a gift for the pungent and telling phrase this same John McCain, were we to give him the chance, could lead us into a rich future. So anyway Elizabeth Drew seems to believe in her heart of hearts. Her infatuation with the senator from Arizona is not exactly alien to her Washington media colleagues. She completes exactly two paragraphs before prompting readers to recall how, after the September 11 disasters, Mr. McCain "defined the situation, rallied the public's morale, and soothed it when it became fearful." Not all Americans may remember it precisely that way.

Many will note that President Bush had something to do with rallying morale and fighting back in the manner commended by none other than Mr. McCain (as when the senator said, regarding the terrorists, "We'll break their backs."). If one doesn't worry much about authorial detachment, "Citizen McCain" the product of close, seemingly constant contact last year with the senator and/or his staff, and centering on Mr. McCain's persistent battle for campaign-finance "reform" has certain merits.

It shows off Mr. McCain's personal and political style. The voice is authentic and compelling funny when funny is called for, decisive in a way that seems not always to go with the territory around modern Washington. When he starts something say, campaign-finance reform he stays with it. His energy is vast. Party affiliation seems to count with him as an encumbrance or an irrelevancy: Getting what he wants is what counts. Of course "what he wants" is precisely the thing, as he himself sees it, that the system and the people need at the moment as, yes, with campaign-finance reform. Mr. McCain, to be fair, is not exactly the first politician to reach, and act upon, this exasperating conclusion.

Not too surprisingly, given such an exhilarating sense of mission, this ex-Navy pilot displays more nerve than an Army mule. No sooner had the Senate finally passed his cherished campaign-finance reform (soiled slightly by compromise) than Mr. McCain was lobbying the House to follow suit. When a blockade ensued and House reformers filed a petition to discharge the legislation to the floor, who worked the phones, in order to line up signatures? Why, Citizen McCain, who else? "So do me a favor and pray over it, will you, my friend?" he chummily and earnestly implores one unidentified fence-straddler: To what end we don't learn here.

The campaign-finance battle, a struggle waged largely against the leaders of Mr. McCain's own party, and thus qualifying as an act of rebellion, is the heart of the book. Elizabeth Drew means to tell us most of what we need to know about the kind of man who would lead such an enterprise. But that's the problem. She doesn't really tell us.

The author, who has been writing about Washington for almost three decades, withholds from her narrative at least two elements that would have made for a more useful account of this battle and Mr. McCain's obsession with it. First, why the obsession? How precisely did Mr. McCain's embarrassing entanglement with the disgraced financier, and McCain campaign contributor, Charles Keating, shape his thinking about reform? And does Mr. McCain really, truly, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die believe limitations on soft money will significantly cleanse the national soul and renovate the political process without compromising free speech? And if so, how? In what ways?

Second, what is the senator's vision for the party system in this theoretically centrist era? Does he believe anybody including, to be sure, John McCain could govern a nation of slippery allegiances, marked by constant reshufflings of alliances and interests? Who would win most of the time? Who would lose? How would political succession be managed? Could it be?

In "Citizen McCain" there is a gee-whiz, what-a-guy quality that disguises all such considerations. Until the last page is turned, and the thin gruel ladled out all along ceases to appease a hunger for understanding. What a guy, yes: So brutalized by North Vietnamese captors that to this day he can't raise his arms above his shoulders; a vital guy, nonetheless engaged, sympathetic, curiously optimistic in his way. It is useful to understand such things about a man who positions himself near the center of our affairs. It would useful to understand much else as well.

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