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Do you have special heroes who help you decide what to do in your life or whatever? John McCain sure does! And they tend to be fictional characters from ridiculous juvenile books and movies, generally about how romantic it is to get shot down or blown up for some pointless bullshit cause that was always a losing proposition that wasn’t even wanted by the people it would ostensibly benefit. In other words, McCain is a 70-year-old man who still reads Hemingway books. But does he have a brave-Mexican-revolutionary costume for Halloween?

We’re reading this McCain: Myth of a Maverick book because a) the author gave us a roll of twenties and b) wow, McCain is far more of a sociopath than we ever figured. He’s also a childlike figure who sees the real world through the magical prism of his make-believe best friend, the doomed communist and “home grown terrorist” Robert Jordan, who tries to do terrorism in a foreign country but ultimately accomplishes nothing more than screwing a teenaged Spanish gal and having lots stiff boring conversations with some old woman named after Hemingway’s boat. And then he gets killed and the Fascists win, again, the end.

From Chapter 1, “Cowboys & Indians”

Everybody has heroes. Some of us (including Giuliani and former New Yorker editor Tina Brown) list McCain among them. But does the quality of our chosen inspiration “qualify” us for the highest office in the land? McCain apparently takes that curious notion seriously enough that he made the same comment on Bill O’Reilly’s TV show just weeks before (“I believe my whole life, my inspiration, my heroes, and my experience have qualified me to serve”), then quickly sent out press releases highlighting that line, and repeated the idea yet again in interviews just following the New Hampshire debate.

Such is the senator’s fixation on role models that his three most recent (and least readable) books — Why Courage Matters (2004), Character Is Destiny (2005), and Hard Call (2007) — are all collections of heartfelt mini-hagiographies glorifying the people who have inspired him most. More than just about any other contemporary politician, McCain’s heroes are fundamental to his political persona and to his own sense of self. So just who are these people?

Drunks, bastards, rule-breakers, cold warriors, coaches, Vietnam vets, and martyrs, mostly. (Many, especially members of his family, belong to multiple categories.)

But the oddest wing in the McCain pantheon is one that might best be labeled “fictional characters from macho melodramas about pre-World War II warfare.” Prominent among them is Marlon Brando’s brown-face characterization of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in McCain’s favorite film, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata Even more central to his life is a figure that sprang from the fertile and romantic imagination of Teddy Roosevelt’s most literarily accomplished fan, Ernest Hemingway.

“The first hero of mine outside of my father and grandfather,” McCain told radio interviewer Larry Mantle in 2002, “[was] Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Jordan, a stoic American who volunteered to blow up Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, was no mere boyhood fling. Hemingway’s blockbuster remains McCain’s favorite novel, his go-to recommendation for the accurate depiction of war, and an ongoing source of compartmental inspiration. “There is nobody I’d rather be than Robert Jordan,” he told the Arizona Daily Star in 2002. His political memoir, Worth the Fighting For, devotes its entire second chapter to the Montana writer-turned resourceful
guerrilla fighter clearly recognizable as Hemingway’s idealized alter-ego.

“For a long time, Robert Jordan was the man I admired above almost all others in life and fiction,” McCain writes. “He was and remains to my mind a hero for the twentieth century.” In fact, the purple title of McCain’s memoir comes from the final chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Jordan tries to stave off death long enough to machine-gun down the soldiers pursuing his comrades: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

When seeing or listening to interviews with the senator about Hemingway’s story, it’s apparent that what really gets his pulse up is the utter romantic hopelessness of it all.

“They were doomed to failure,” he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press in 2002. “But he still went to blow the bridge . . . in an attack that he knew could not succeed. It’s a — it’s a wonderful story.”

McCain is the patron saint of lost causes.

Excerpted with permission from McCain: Myth of a Maverick by Matt Welch, (c) 2007 , Palgrave-MacMillan

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