Can John McCain avoid becoming the next Colin Powell?

John McCain is one of the few interesting people in American politics these days, and it's nice that he's ours, the latest in a line of nationally known, independent-minded politicians from Arizona, none of them tractable enough to become president. Goldwater was too doctrinaire, Udall too funny, and McCain is too combative to be elected, but they're all memorable.

Of course, they're still exceptions. No matter what we like to tell ourselves, Arizona has produced plenty of nebbishes--quick, what did Dennis DeConcini stand for?--and way more than our share of hick wackjobs like Jake Flake. (I can say this: One of my great-grandmothers was born Mormon in Snowflake, named for Bishop Snow and Bishop Flake. I am not making this up.)

McCain has always been outspoken and hot-headed, traits rare enough in the mealy-mouthing world of politics to make a pol sneakily attractive even if you disagree with him. And in the last few years, he's become much easier for yarn-dyed liberals like me to get behind. For those of us who still mourn Mo Udall and have vivid memories of the Keating scandal, this is startling, but McCain's growing power in the Senate, national visibility and total job security seem to have given him the footing he needs not only to speak his mind but change it. Although he once had a perfect anti-environmental voting record, for example, he's now vocal about global warming, the biggest for-real issue of our time. (Imagine the voice of your darling unborn grandchild: "Where were you when the ice-caps were melting, Grandma?") McCain has always been brave; now he's actually right about some things, too.

Of course, there's also stuff like his votes against the assault-weapons ban. He co-sponsored an amendment closing the gun-show loophole back in March (good), but wouldn't cross the aisle to vote for a measure even more offensive to the snarling lords of the National Rifle Association--the renewal of the assault-weapons ban, which he also voted against in 1994. (A conundrum of our time: Why do the same people who think gay marriage is dangerous feel that assault rifles are harmless? Exactly how many innocent people have been killed and maimed by same-sex weddings?) The ban on the sale of cop-killers like Uzis and AK-47s, a prohibition that more than 70 percent of the voters happen to favor, will expire Sept. 14 if Bush doesn't force the House to a vote. He won't do it, and your average congressman is so afraid of the NRA that he's desperate not to vote on the measure. McCain, when asked about this phenomenon, commented with his usual force: "The NRA runs this place." That's our John. Except he, too, toed the line in March. Well, maybe he was including himself as one of the run-ees, which would be sort of honest.

See how far gone I am? I'm looking for a way to believe that he's not a hypocrite. Eeek.

Which brings us to why I really hope he's sincere in his desire not to be vice president. (McCain gem: He was told what to do for 5 1/2 years by the Viet Cong and has no interest in more of that.) My concern is not that McCain on the ticket would improve Bush's drain-circling prospects of re-election--at this point, George W. could run with Jesus Christ and lose--but that our guy might suffer the sad fate of Colin Powell: ruining his reputation by serving possibly the worst president this country has ever had.

I mean, it's sad. Powell used to be so widely and deeply admired that he was treated as a saint even in left-wing smartypants cartoons like "Doonesbury." Then he hooked up with Cheney and his friends--and with Bush, their corporate spokesperson--and blew his own good name forever. How will Powell be remembered in the history books now? As the tough, gifted and principled military man he used to be? No, he'll go down as the Secretary of State who used his reputation for integrity to front for bad men who wanted to start a pointless but profitable little war. Mark my words: This administration is so corrupt that it will eventually blacken the name of everyone associated with it.

Ah Colin, we hardly knew ye. Now we learn that when you went before the United Nations General Assembly, you ignored the skeptical conclusions of your own State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research in favor of the rickety Nigerian yellowcake fable preferred by the White House. This both raises the unpleasant question of whether you knew you were misleading the world, and reduces it to a Jesuitical wrangle.

This kind of stuff isn't McCain's strong suit. Good for him.

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