I don't know Kyrsten Sinema, but I did know John McCain. Not at all intimately, to be sure, but just enough to say -- despite her pretensions and the fantasies of her flacks that she is the reincarnation of the war hero in a purple wig -- that Kyrsten Sinema is no John McCain.
Lately Sinema has advertised herself as a "maverick," by which she means that she flouts the positions and policies of her party's leadership, and is supposed to pair her with McCain, who sometimes strayed from the Republican party line. Her most notorious attempt at imitation occurred last year with a gesture on the Senate floor marking her vote against a minimum wage increase. Her coy mimicry of the admired war hero was synthetic, leaving an unpleasant odor in its wake. When McCain delivered his bold "thumbs down" on gutting Obamacare, he was protecting Arizona's working families – not betraying them.
Why Sinema behaves so erratically these days is mysterious to many pundits, in part because she simply refuses to talk with journalists. Her Sphinx act would have been impossible for McCain, who frequently and happily discussed in detail why he acted and voted as he did -- or almost any topic that a reporter might bring up.
Sinema may not hate journalists—who knows?—but she plainly doesn't want to hang out with them. Like I said, she's no John McCain.
Indeed, I first met the late senator when he approached me at a Washington dinner to say a few nice words about a recent TV appearance where I had expressed views he certainly did not share. I had no problem reaching him for an interview in the years following that friendly introduction – and he was even more easily available to those who covered him regularly. Candid and thoughtful, he saw engagement with the press as a vital part of the job. He loved being known as a "straight shooter," a nickname he aimed to deserve.
There could hardly be a sharper contrast with the squirrelly Sinema. A political reporter who has covered her for the New York Times recently wrote that she's "one of the most elusive senators on Capitol Hill," noting that she "doesn't engage with Washington reporters in a serious way." She also doesn't engage with reporters in an unserious way, again unlike McCain, who had a sense of humor, too. She applies the same arrogant disregard to her constituents, with whom she doesn't deign to meet in public.
Her secretive style wouldn't have impressed McCain, famed for hosting what the Arizona Republic called "his free-for-all town hall sessions." Just enter "McCain" and "town hall" in a search engine to see video of what those were like.
Sinema's shifting ideological colorations display a kaleidoscopic, almost dizzying opportunism – which isn't quite the right look for a politician emulating McCain. Yet there was an episode in McCain's career that invites comparison with the way she operates now.
In 1991, following the crisis that bankrupted the savings-and-loan industry, McCain was one of five US senators investigated for intervening with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a crooked financier whose Lincoln Savings & Loan went under at a cost of $3.4 billion. Like McCain, the other four – including Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), Don Riegle (D-MI), Alan Cranston (D-CA) and John Glenn (D-OH) – had taken big donations from Keating. Keating had also provided the McCain family with free flights and hospitality at his Bahamas estate on three occasions as well as various other favors.
The Senate Ethics Committee investigated "the Keating Five," ultimately issuing wrist slaps, but the public hearings and news reports were nevertheless damning. Here was a clique of politicians who looked as if Keating had bought them rather cheaply.
The emerging image of Sinema -- who opposes lower prices for prescription drugs after taking nearly a million dollars from the Pharma lobby and has become a darling of K Street – is no more flattering. So far, Sinema shows no signs of the remorse that overcame McCain, who publicly flagellated himself for "the worst mistake of my life" and later fought for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms that Republicans opposed.
So when Sinema postures as a rebel and invokes McCain, don't get distracted by the superficial pretense. McCain learned from his mistakes. Sinema hasn't learned from the real McCain. But, like I said, she's no John McCain.
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