The mythical maverick and lipsticked pitbull

The maverick. A range animal unbranded, or an iconic figure that stands alone, untethered to society and its rules, and remains, still, deeply embedded in American mythology. We are enamored of the rugged individual, the free spirit who lives apart, independent of any group or party. Our films and our literature are replete with this image, the cowboy being one example.

The John McCain campaign long ago successfully fused McCain with the maverick moniker. It's been a brilliant example of marketing — for at its center, a nugget of truth hence resonates. McCain was the fearless fighter pilot, and, of course, a prisoner of war whose courage and suffering was immeasurable. When told he could leave the Hanoi Hilton early, out of sequence, he refused and then endured. The stories of his torture are chilling and ennobling and give McCain an unparalleled stature.

But when judging the life and the persona he has fashioned in politics, that of the maverick — the man who has gone his own way in Washington, fought with his own party over policy, took principled stands no matter the consequences — the reality is that this is the stuff of legend and, in great part, fiction.

According to published reports, such as the Congressional Quarterly's unity score, which tracks how often members of Congress vote with their party, McCain, over the course of his career, has stood with his party 84 percent of the time. The American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 82 percent. McCain is also reported to be the eighth-most conservative senator in the 110th Senate. During the last four years he has voted with President Bush more than 90 percent of the time. While he once denigrated Bush's tax cuts for the rich, he now supports them. While he was once against offshore drilling, he is now for it. He worked with the Democrats on an immigration bill that he now rejects, joining his party's "border security first" forces.

And yet the maverick myth has endured with the press as enabler-in-chief. And so, during the Republican convention, the image of the maverick has once again been inextricably linked to McCain, portraying him as the Washington outsider who will arrive in Washington at high noon and clean up the saloons and put God-fearing people back to work. It's classic political storytelling and the fact that it bears little resemblance to truth matters not a whit. Recall that those saloons were built by Republicans who have controlled the White House for eight years and Congress for six. And John McCain is, if nothing else, a solid, in the fold Republican — the consummate insider who, if the conservatives held up a nail, John would hand them a hammer.

Lipstick on a pitbull

And speaking of Republican storytelling, the rationale for selecting Sarah Palin has been remarkable in the annals of spin: the maverick, a Washington outsider, an independent woman who has taken on the power brokers in her own state. Of course it's dicey to criticize Palin. She is an accomplished woman, albeit with a thin resume compared to other Washington Republicans. She's a mother, wife, past mayor of a small town and now into her first term as governor of Alaska. She can field dress a moose and was commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard. She's also very conservative and vigorously pro-life to the point that she rejects the idea of an abortion for victims of incest or rape. She gave birth last April to a baby boy who has the chromosomal disorder known as Down Syndrome. Her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, it was recently disclosed, is five months pregnant and unmarried.

There is one thought that comes to mind that has gotten little play in the press. Long before Palin was told she was on the short list of McCain's Vice Presidential picks, she knew that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. Though being asked to join the Republican ticket as the V.P. is an unsurpassed honor, there was one overriding consideration that might have warranted Palin declining the offer.

She should have declined not because she was an unknown on the national political stage; not because she is embroiled in an investigation now known as "Trooper-gate"; not because she actively supported Alaska's Republican Ted Stevens who is now under indictment; or because she sought Washington earmarks when mayor; nor because she supported the bridge to nowhere before she was against it; and not because of the cognitive dissonance created when she lobbied for abstinence education and not comprehensive sex education in the public schools. All of which has been reported in detail in the media.

Rather, what should have given her immense pause was the knowledge that her daughter, facing a life-changing crisis of imminent motherhood and, reportedly, an impending marriage to an 18-year-old boy, would certainly be made the subject of national scrutiny, tabloid fodder and grungy blogger innuendo and rumor. It was all a given. And it was bound to cause this young woman (and the father) immense pain, no matter the brave faces we see publicly. How could it not? Something so profoundly personal now open for national discussion and judgment?

Yet Palin made the decision to step forward. The price she will pay as she is vetted by the press pales by comparison to the price her daughter will pay. "Hockey moms" protect their kids first. The rest is just prologue.

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