McCain entered Congress in 1981, as part of the Reagan wave. He was hawkish in all things, though in his first year in the House he disagreed with Reagan about keeping US Marines in Lebanon. He voted against Martin Luther King Day in 1983, but for sanctioning apartheid South Africa in 1986. That same year he moved to the Senate. Though he took over Goldwater’s seat, he was temperamentally more of a backslapper and a crony; Navy liaison to the Senate had been that kind of job. In 1989, during the savings and loan crisis, McCain was one of the “Keating Five”: senators who took money from banker Charles Keating when they were supposed to be regulating the industry. Only after that scandal did McCain take up the issue of campaign finance reform, although he continued to deregulate the finance industry and to reap money.
He acquired the sobriquet “maverick” in the mid-’90s, a decade after Tom Cruise played Maverick in Top Gun—another short, dickish, hotheaded navy fighter pilot with unresolved father issues. “Maverick” signals individualism; it was originally a term for unbranded cattle. But it is the wrong word for McCain. His individualism had more to do with individual atonement: with having been branded, burned, dishonored, but then redeemed. Often these atonements would performatively rehearse his captivity. The Keating Five was that kind of episode: McCain admitted the error and histrionically likened the ordeal to his time in Hanoi. Campaign finance reform was the redemption. The pattern is familiar: a moment of dishonor, a trial, a grimace, an atonement. McCain wanted these performances to be the definitive markers of time. Once you have the scar tissue, there’s no point in discussing the wound.
Or he was called a maverick when he was really just generationally out of step. He was a reliable Republican company man, to be sure, rewarded with predictable millions from the NRA. But even as a Republican he channeled rustier orthodoxies. He took over Goldwater’s Senate seat but not Goldwater’s mantle of ideological conservatism. He invoked Teddy Roosevelt’s rustic-progressive strenuous life while Reagan attacked the welfare state. He thrilled to Roosevelt’s Rough Riders while his party tuned to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. McCain wasn’t really a neocon because he’d never not been a hawk. (He could thus oxymoronically call himself the “original neocon” when boosting the Iraq war.) When challenged from the nativist Republican base, he claimed Reagan as his political idol, but with a protesting-too-much ardor. He even interpolated Reagan back into his tale of captivity, claiming that he and his fellow POWs were psyched to gather scratches of information about the then-governor of California. They heard about Reagan but not the moon landing?
McCain is best understood less as a reactionary than as an anachronism. An anachronism does not merely evoke another era; he is literally from another era, like a Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the American Revolution, or a Captain America retrieved from the ice. McCain’s generational otherness allowed other generations to project meaning onto him. He satisfied our nostalgia and our need for narrative. He also capitalized on that need, and being an anachronism shielded him from criticism.