McCain’s Path: A Tale of the West
Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 7:48 am
ONTARIO, Calif. — On Monday, when Sen. John McCain stepped onto a steamy tarmac in Fresno, Calif., he did so as a man who had come from somewhere else, as generations of people before him, who had placed his future in the faith of the West.
Thirty-five years had passed since McCain had returned home from Vietnam, and it had been 25 years since he first ran as a congressman in one of the most Western of all Western states — Arizona. Now he was the man who, perhaps without knowing it, wrapped himself in the mythology of the American West that, in truth, is the story, movement, of America itself.
It is hard, for many, to think of McCain as a man of the West. He was, and is, the product of the Eastern establishment, son and grandson of admirals, a graduate of Annapolis. Among those of us who call the nation’s capital home, he seems inseparable from the corridors of the Senate, of press conferences announcing the culmination of some bipartisan deal.
But to see McCain solely as a man of Washington is to miss the point. We like to think of those west of the Mississippi as descendants of ranchers, of men like John Wayne’s troubled-and-torn hero in John Ford’s black-and-white epic “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.” But it is also the story of Wayne’s counterpart in the film, the idealistic lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart, who comes from his safe Eastern trappings to make something of himself, to re-imagine himself, and who would, in short order, represent the needs of his adopted home in Washington.
“My first thought is his story doesn’t look like part of the American West,” said Patty Limerick, faculty director and chairwoman of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she’s also a professor of history. “But his story is very much like the Western story of the 19th century — of having been born somewhere else. Our stereotype of Westerners is so narrow now, that if you aren’t descended from a miner, or rancher, you’re not really from here. But [McCain's] story is the Western story.”
Indeed, even his maverick title is something that is born of America’s first massive Western migration, following the Civil War in the 1860s and 70s. Mavericks were the untended cattle, left unbranded, who were rounded up by those who came as part of the great cattle boom that followed the most awful period in this nation’s history. At one moment they were not officially claimed, and at the next they were. It was part of creating a new way of life on one’s own — bordering, just bordering, on theft. That’s part of the Western story as well.
Now McCain was in California–the physical birthplace of Richard M. Nixon and spiritual birthplace of Ronald Reagan, the place where Joan Didion once beautifully described as a “place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekovian loss meet in an uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspension that things had better work here, because beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
And yet things have stopped working in California. This is no longer a place we can go to escape problems. Instead, its problems–energy, pollution, immigration, home foreclosures, unbounded gasoline prices– serve as the template of domestic concerns that loom over this country in this dark and troubled time. Here, at the edge of the continental boundaries, is where the ideals of unbridled individualism–perhaps best personified by the freeways and exurbs of Los Angeles — have been tempered by the needs of a struggling collective.
Following a speech at Fresno State on Monday — where the school’s president was absent due to his team’s participation in the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb. — McCain stood in front of two space-aged electric cars, which he promised would someday be affordable to everyone, mirroring the same downward spiral of costs we saw with cellphones. Standing there in the blistering heat, surrounded by khaki-colored buildings with red Spanish-style roofs, McCain, who can seem out of place at certain venues, seemed very much at home.
“I’m a Western senator,” said McCain, his head sporting a bandage on a wound he received getting out of a car during a recent trip to Canada. “I understand the issues ranging from Native Americans to water to public lands — all of these issues I’ve had a vast experience and background in dealing with. I’m confident that I can compete and win here.” One recent poll had McCain trailing Obama in the state by 12 percentage points.
And yet one couldn’t help feeling the weight McCain was working under, beneath the legacy of Reagan. Reagan, was the Californian who formed the nation’ modern vision of the Western politician — the man who mythologically rode his horse from California, donned a suit, ended the Cold War in the way he deemed best and, in the process, suffused the country with his own brand of Western spirit. But Reagan was actually a stranger to the West, who came here to take care of Bonzo, marry and divorce Jane Wyman and reinvent the Republican Party — and the nation — for good and forever.
And while everyone, and we mean everyone, in the Republican primaries tried to liken themselves to “The Great Communicator,” perhaps it’s McCain that is best suited to lay claim to at least a sliver of the Gipper’s legacy. While many of the Republican “base” might bristle at such a comparison, the fact is that Reagan was, at his core, a practical man, willing compromise on issues like immigration.
“I don’t think McCain is a reincarnation of Reagan,” said Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan for The Washington Post and wrote a a plethora of Regan biographies. “Everyone’s looking for the next Michael Jordan and there’s only one Michael Jordan. Reagan comes out of an era where the Western Republicans were essentially libertarians. And I think McCain’s soul hearkens back to that era of conservatism. McCain as Reagan doesn’t work. McCain as a representative of the Reagan era, of being a practical, libertarian conservative, does work.”
But what McCain also shares with Reagan is an understanding of the duality of the West. Here is a place that prided itself on the rancher, the lone man on the trail, on wanting to be left alone to one’s own business. But it’s a place whose very existence as a living, thriving entity could not have come about without the hand of big government. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, working off the economic ideals of John Maynard Keynes, commissioned untold work projects and development under the auspices of the New Deal. It was the federal government that provided the dams and roads, the infrastructure that allowed the 20th century building of the West as not only a viable place to live, but the place to live, the golden land.
“The fact is the West is becoming a very urban place,” said Bill Fulton, a senior scholar at the USC School of Policy and author of “The Reluctant Metropolis:The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles” who is also deputy mayor of Ventura, Calif. “I have a friend who calls it small lots and lots of big sky. People here are at once very office-bound but very open-space-oriented. They don’t have this pastoral, rural quality when they go home from work. People in bigger cities, in places like Phoenix and Denver and Las Vegas, spend their week in traffic jams and their weekends on the trail.”
The West has evolved into a terribly fragile place–something McCain seems to understand. During his trip here he constantly touted his plans to reform the way the West, and by example, America, works through an environmental overhaul that included the rebirth of nuclear power. But such grand plans–as large as the grand vistas of the West itself–run into modern practicalities and modern fears.
In the well-heeled environs of Santa Barbara, McCain hosted a panel on Tuesday morning that included much loved Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, McCain ran into a buzz-saw in the form of fellow panelist Michael Feeney, the executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County.
“I don’t understand how it’s not compromising our environmental standards to propose a crash program to build more nuclear power plants when the industry has not complied with the federal law that requires there to be safe disposal for the radioactive waste,” Feeney said. “There is no solution to that problem, and that’s a big stumbling block for me to a rapid expansion of nuclear energy.”
When McCain insisted the technology existed, that the nuclear-cool kids–the Europeans, whom McCain mentions constantly–were doing it, Feeney conceded that he didn’t know what our would-be models for energy production were doing but bluntly said, “We are not dealing with it in as successful way in the United States at this point. I know that.”
Toward the end of what had been a surprisingly lively talk, McCain took time to laud Schwarzenegger for his ability to build coalitions, to get things done. In many ways, the tanned, chiseled governator and the elder Arizona senator are cut from the same narrative cloth. Both are men who reinvented themselves in the West–McCain from solider to statesman, Schwarzenegger from, well, you, know — and are both faced with the mighty task of saving this place from the things tearing it from within.
“I believe in bipartisanship and that’s been my record of reaching across the aisle,” McCain said, when I asked him of his comments later in the day. “Whether it be to Joe Lieberman, to Russ Feingold, to Ted Kennedy…that’s been what I’ve done…I have a long record of that and I think that’s what the American people want. I have a long record of putting my country, not only before my party, but before myself. Sen. Obama does not have that record. He talks the talk but has not walked the walk.”
Late Tuesday evening, McCain’s campaign plane descended from the darkness above Las Vegas into the lights below. Even for the most jaundiced eyes, setting foot in this oasis in the desert, one is struck by the complete unrealness of Vegas — how it manages to jumble together all the hopes and dreams, the inconsistencies and myths and grandness of the West. And, as with the rest of the country, it is struggling. Here in the mythological city, McCain had arrived as the man who would preserve the myth.
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