Where have you gone, John McCain?

I was half-listening to John McCain’s animatronic victory speech after the Wisconsin primary when my ears suddenly perked up. Inadvertently, I realized, he’d answered a question I’ve wondered about for years.

How much of himself will a good man sell?

The answer, apparently, is “All.” Under the weight of ambition, a man who withstood years of enemy torture, a legitimate hero by most definitions, will piece himself out entirely.

This may not be news, but in McCain’s case it’s a disappointment to me. We’re far apart politically—at least I think we are. I wonder if even McCain himself knows where he stands now—but there was a time when I admired him as much as any Republican alive.

Some of his beliefs defied logic, but I attributed that to his background. He’d been a naval officer, the son and grandson of admirals. That’s as hidebound a culture as still exists in the free world; the guy probably won’t use the left turn signal on his car, just so nobody can accuse him of veering in that direction.

I liked him anyway. His courage was unquestionable. He seemed to say what he meant, and some of what he said made sense in a nonpartisan way. Our method of financing political campaigns is as great a threat to democracy as is global terrorism, and McCain fought for reform there. Almost alone among national Republicans, he’s not a lunatic on immigration. We’re simply not going to send 12 million immigrants “back to Mexico” nor jail them here, and we can’t solve the immigration problem, if it’s a problem, until the xenophobes and racists shut up about that.

When, in 2000, McCain called fundamentalist Christian leaders “agents of intolerance” and accused George W. Bush of pandering to them in a campaign of “division and slander,” he hit a note I’d been waiting for someone to sound for 15 years. Taking on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell—"corrupting influences on religion and politics"—took bigger stones than I’d seen on a politician in decades.

Maybe it won’t be so bad, I thought then, if the Democrats keep stumbling around randomly. George W. Bush seemed a long shot at the time, and McCain was that rarest of entities, a Republican who, if he couldn’t think outside the box, at least recognized that the box existed.

But where is he now, this maverick who almost made me line up with what Molly Ivins called The R’s? Google “panderer” for a picture.

The Bushies, guided by that great American and former Sparks resident Karl Rove, cranked up the GOP slime machine and blew McCain out of the 2000 presidential race. To a reasonably objective observer, their attacks seemed both transparent and disgusting, but many voters lacked clear vision and gag reflexes.

I quit paying attention to McCain for a while after that. In 2006, though, just six years after speaking his mind about Falwell (and five after Falwell blamed the World Trade Center attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians … ACLU and People for the American Way"), he was the graduation speaker at the religious leader’s Liberty University. In a deftly content-free suckup, he skirted the issues that had caused him to condemn Falwell in the first place, according to a story in the Washington Post. Instead, the senator “vigorously defended his support for the war in Iraq while saying that opponents have a moral duty to challenge the wisdom” of the conflict.

As far as I can tell, that’s the last time he took a stand. Where have you gone, John McCain?