I am not sure who must have felt worse—John or Cindy McCain—when Sarah Palin bounded onstage in Tucson last Friday, wearing that fetching black leather dominatrix jacket to deliver a hair-swinging, wink-winking pep talk, and revving up the Tea-baggers who came to see her not him. It was a sweet moment for Sarah. McCain’s 2008 election team—those “old school” losers, as she doubtless thinks of them—have trashed her
ever since they lost.
Cindy McCain was glacially self-contained in a trim, chic suit, at her husband’s side. When will high-def pick up the grinding of teeth? She introduced Palin as “ a breath of fresh air” when in fact, as far as the McCains are concerned, Palin was a tornado wreaking havoc on the senator’s campaign for president with a personal reality show that enthralled the public but appalled the voters. She has since used the celebrity he bestowed on her to become the La Pasionaria of the No Spin Zone crowd, who now want only to unseat him and install his cocky challenger J.D Hayworth.
It's like the Hanoi Hilton in reverse: He held out under physical torture, but under political torture it seems he’ll say and do just about anything.
No doubt for Cindy McCain the thought of having her husband back in town and hanging around the house if he loses his Senate seat is worth the indignity of once again appearing next to him to pretend that the current pin-up of violent populism stands for the same things as a principled war hero.
But for John McCain himself, and the people who have so long admired him, surely this moment in Tucson was a killer moment of moral degradation. McCain’s whole deal has been that he’s his own man, a maverick, a courageous loner. He defied the Bushies by speaking vehemently against torture. He stuck his neck out for the Iraq surge. He denounced the corrupting influence of money in politics. He was the scourge of pork. Whatever he really thought about Palin as his campaign went down in flames and his team threw her under the bus, he gallantly kept his counsel.
• Meghan McCain: McCain-Palin, the Sequel
• J.D. Hayworth on running against McCainThat bit, at least, paid off, I guess. It meant he could call on Palin to get him out of a hole in his fight against a meretricious former talk-show host riding anti-incumbent fervor to within seven points of upending him. By using Palin to pander to the Tea Party, however, McCain showed his willingness to repudiate everything that made him special, just so he can hold on to a Senate seat. It’s like the Hanoi Hilton in reverse: He held out under physical torture, but under political torture it seems he’ll say and do just about anything. That character change seems to date from the strange reversal of magic that occurred when he succumbed to political opportunism in 2004 in Pensacola and embraced George W. Bush, the man who allowed the disgraceful smear campaign against him in South Carolina four years earlier.
As for Palin, her political heart, if she had one, would of course be with McCain’s challenger, who purportedly stands for everything she does. But being consistent politically is no longer as important to Sarah Palin as being a star. The McCain gig in Tucson was a big booking; images of being embraced anew by a legend provided resonant media far more valuable than backing the other guy in the race, who merely furthered the Tea Party cause. When she’s out at their fervid rallies, Palin pretends to be talking to True Believers in a political movement. But she’s really only talking to consumers. Buy my book. Watch my show. Hype my brand. She has chosen celebrity over politics, and who can blame her, given what hell it is to try and serve your country in Washington these days.
If McCain wins this last race he knows it will be because of her. It’s not impossible that Palin will turn out to be his most enduring legacy. Disinterested public service has become, just so… what’s the phrase, “old school.”
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.