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Jewish World Review June 7, 2001 / 17 Sivan, 5761

Michael Kelly

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Master of McCain's Game -- I feel pretty, oh, so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and gay. And I pity any girl who isn't me today. Gosh, it's a wonderful time to be a brave, bold, independent-thinking, straight-talking, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, profile-in-courage, Mr.-Last-Honest-Man-Goes-to-Washington, presidential-timber, maverick United States senator.

It is so wonderful that now we have two of them. There used to be just the senior senator from the state of self-love, John McCain. McCain was not the original of the species -- there have been plain, lean-visaged, gravel-voiced speakers of truth in the U.S. Senate for as long as there have been reporters fat-headed enough to swallow the act, which is to say forever.

But McCain was sui generis. He was to the run-of-the-mill media-hound senator as Marilyn Monroe was to the run-of-the-mill sexpot. He took an old and tired stereotype and reinvented it through exaggeration. McCain didn't just wait for reporters to describe him as the last straight-talker in politics; he named his presidential primary campaign bus the Straight Talk Express. Unlike other war-hero politicians, he didn't just murmur his reluctance to lay bare the secret and heroic horrors of his war; he shouted his reluctance from the rooftops. He spent his presidential run not so much in bed with the press as in Plato's Retreat, and he made it clear that he loved every lubricious moment of it. And so too did the press. Never was there a more reciprocated love.

So it must have hurt when McCain picked up Newsweek's June 4 issue and saw a world that had gone suddenly topsy-turvy. The cover was undeniably a McCain cover: There was a square-jawed, square-shouldered senator, arms folded, eyes unblinkingly aimed straight at the camera. Yes, definitely a McCain cover. But . . . the senator on the cover wasn't John McCain. He was standing like John McCain, he was looking strong and rugged and honest like John McCain. Yet he was somebody else entirely! Apparently somebody named, improbably enough, Jeffords. That is what the headline suggested: "Mr. Jeffords Blows Up Washington." The subhead -- "A Quiet Yankee Sends a Loud Message to the Republican Right" -- further implied that the man was not John McCain. John McCain, it was well known, was not a Quiet Yankee but a Fiercely Independent Westerner.

Turning to Jonathan Alter's cover story, McCain must have felt yet more discombobulated. Again, the story was clearly a McCain story -- it was indeed very like many McCain stories Alter had written in the past. The same glowing praise ("think 'Silent Cal' Coolidge, another Vermonter who shaped history, only sweeter and more liberal"); the same depiction of the liberal politician as selfless citizen-patriot ("a shy and quirky workhorse with no taste for the cameras"); the same unstinting approval for sticking it to the horrid Republican Right. Yet, again, the name on the page was Jeffords.

I wonder if McCain noticed the photo credit lines for the posed cover shot and the posed inside spread of Jeffords standing defiant in the Senate well. Nestled in the small type were seven little words that really told so much about the shy and quirky workhorse with no taste for the cameras: "grooming by Cathy Kades -- The Artist Agency."

But no doubt McCain didn't need that hint to know that he was looking at himself all over again. If ever there was a man positioning himself to ride that media wave out of the ranks of the anonymous 100 to the big job with the big plane, it was Sen. Workhorse.

I imagine it is the naked plagiarism that must most deeply gall McCain. Why, he had created the role of Conscience of the Party of Lincoln, speaking more in sorrow than in anger against the radical extremism of his fellow Republicans. Now this Jeffords had vaulted past the farthest limits of McCain's dissent and disrespect. And, accordingly, now the cover of fickle Newsweek was Jeffords's. Infuriating, just infuriating.

But, ah, McCain's counter-move; now, there was a stroke. A just-social weekend house party with Tom Daschle and the former Clinton adviser Bruce Reed -- and who would have thought The Post and the New York Times would play a little thing like that on the front page? -- promptly shined the light back where it should be.

The great battle of the consciences is joined. I'm betting on McCain, because timing is on his side. Jeffords has already switched, he will vote Democratic. Where is the mystery in that, where is the story? It is back in the hand of the old master, who will happily spend the next three years making Republicans tremble with fear, and reporters with delight, at his every word.

Still, that young Jeffords is an awfully promising ingenue. Also a shy and quirky workhorse.

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