Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/7/08
John McCain’s saucy mother says her boy was always a scamp and a hell-raiser. And one of the senator’s great charms is that he wore those appellations proudly.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
So it was quite disheartening Thursday to see a McCain spokeswoman telling The Associated Press, in a story about how Cindy McCain helped her husband’s political career bloom with her multimillion-dollar fortune from the family beer business, that the senator is a virtual teetotaler.
“Senator McCain rarely, if ever, drinks alcohol,” Jill Hazelbaker averred.
McCain’s pals know him as a man who enjoys libations of vodka with little green cocktail olives. Over the years, at dinners with reporters, I noted he had the habit of ordering one double vodka and sipping it slowly. And there was that famous Hillary-McCain Estonian drink-off in 2004, when Hillary instigated a vodka shot contest and McCain agreed with alacrity (even though he later offered a sketchy denial).
Maybe now that he’s the presumptive Republican nominee, his campaign wants to put his vices in a vise and sanitize the wild side of the man whose nicknames in high school were “Punk,” “Nasty” and “McNasty.”
Next they’ll deny he likes to gamble in Vegas (“I’ll put $50,000 on Bomb Iran, with 3-to-1 odds”), socialize with liberals and lash out at people who annoy him. (As a toddler, he had “tiny” rages. “I would go off in a mad frenzy and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious,” he wrote. His parents would drop him into a bathtub of icy water.)
If his campaign is bowdlerizing, let’s hope it stops before he’s a bland McNice.
Americans, after all, don’t trust candidates without any vices. They got turned off by the picture-perfect Mitt Romney, whose khakis were never wrinkled and whose hair stayed eerily in place even while he was jogging in a campaign commercial.
Do we really need McCain obfuscating on drinking, and Obama putting up a smoke screen on smoking?
Ever since Chicago reporters followed the up-and-coming Obama and saw him flicking his ashes and butts out the windows of moving vehicles, the senator has had a testy relationship with the press about his addictions to cigarettes and littering. (Obama, wrote one reporter on his blog, was “one of those reprehensible nicotine addicts who seems to believe that the world is his ashtray.”)
When Chris Matthews tried to pin down Obama on when he’d had his last cigarette, he radiated guilt, even though he dryly noted that “having your wife say on ‘60 Minutes’ that if you see Barack with a cigarette, let me know’ was a heck of a deterrent.
“I fell off the wagon a couple times during the course of it and then was able to get back on,” the candidate admitted. “But it is a struggle like everything else.”
In his book and last week’s bio-tour, McCain painted himself as a cool bad boy. He was a girl-loving, authority-defying, plane-crashing Top Gun.
In his memoir, Obama played up his vices to depict himself as a cool bad boy, too, recalling that he had smoked pot and done “a little blow.”
But now the two men are sticking to the straight and narrow. Everyone may imagine that Obama and his press corps spend all their time quaffing Champagne and celebrating the astonishment of his very being. But the candidate is boringly abstemious — and reporters traveling with him find him aloof. On a 2005 trip to Russia, he priggishly requested that his vodka shot glass be filled with water.
Oddly, Hillary, a Tracy Flick Goodie Two Shoes growing up, is the only one who seems to be enjoying her vices — even beyond the delight she takes in the dark and costly Mark Penn, and the gusto with which she bedazzled her résumé and then bedazzled some more when she got caught bedazzling. Her campaign doesn’t deny that she likes to kick back, at the end of a long day, with a vodka on her plane.
Bill Clinton is a cautionary tale about what happens if you surrender too many cherished vices. Curtailed from Burkling, international jet-setting, cholesterol-chowing and race-baiting, Bill has gotten raspy and lost his legendary charm. He blew up at a California superdelegate who objected that Bill Richardson, a former Clinton cabinet member, was being painted as Judas because he wasn’t willing to transfer his affections from Bill to Hillary — and no doubt one day to Chelsea. The ex-prez railed against the “political elite” and said it was a “bunch of bull” that there were calls for Hillary to leave the race. In Lawrenceburg, Ind., he dubbed himself a “rural hitman” for his wife.
Churlish Bill doesn’t even follow his own advice. According to the Clinton tax returns, he gave only $1 million to charity out of the $6.3 million he made for his book “Giving” — even though his income has gone up 6,900 percent since his White House years.
Let the Big Dog off his leash. There can be virtue in a little vice.