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Meet Captain Climate
Page 2

In many ways, McCain makes an unlikely environmentalist, lacking among other things the strong sense of place that has turned so many people into passionate conservationists. Instead, he was the classic military child -- both his father and grandfather were Navy admirals -- and he made his own career in the service, eventually, of course, ending up in a North Vietnamese prison camp. When he finally hung up his uniform, he settled in Arizona only because it was the home of his second wife. "All my life I had been rootless," he says. In fact, the turning point in his first run for Congress in 1982 came when an opponent called him a carpet-bagger in one debate. "Listen, pal," he said. "I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

Once he found a home, however, McCain seemed to grow taproots, deep down into the desert sand. He bought a retreat on Oak Creek, near Sedona. His favorite season there, he says, is the spring: "Lots and lots of flowers. Lots and lots of wildlife, especially birds -- wild ducks, quail, hummingbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos, which are very rare. A pair of black hawks. There are javelina, coyote. A cougar passes through once in a while. Deer, beaver. It's the most beautiful place on earth."

So maybe, if you were looking for the reason that John McCain has become the Senate's only western Republican to take environmental issues seriously, you could point to the pure power of landscape. "The ecology of the desert is very fragile. Obviously climate change could have a very serious effect there," he says.

Or maybe the seeds were planted earlier. Republicans often give lip service to the idea that they're "from the party of Theodore Roosevelt," but few are as devoted as McCain. Most environmentalists revere T.R. for the national parks and monuments and wildlife refuges he left dotting the country. But McCain admired him first for his military insight, his courage as a soldier, and his "deeply personal, almost spiritual, sense of patriotism." Those may sound like conservative virtues, but they turned Roosevelt into a crusader: He railed against the notion that private interest always trumps public good. Roosevelt believed, says McCain, that "base materialism tempted people to indolence and greed."

Photo of John McCainMcCain's other influences were more contemporary. He says one of his greatest mentors was Morris Udall, Arizona's longtime liberal congressman (and another failed populist presidential candidate), who went out of his way to befriend the young McCain during his first term. "I loved Mo Udall. Absolutely loved him," says McCain, who cosponsored the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act with Udall. "By the time I knew him he already had Parkinson's, so we spent less time outdoors than I would have wanted. But we traveled the state together. There was no greater environmentalist than Mo Udall."

In truth, though, this kind of analysis can get you only so far. Take, for instance, Jon Kyl, Arizona's other Republican senator. He's doubtless spent plenty of time admiring desert wildflowers, and surely he knew the Udalls too, but the last scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters gave him an 8 percent rating, and he took to the floor of the Senate to denounce McCain's global warming bill as "foolish."

Even asking McCain straight out why he's been willing to take on this most thorny of environmental issues doesn't prove terribly revealing. His support of legislation to curb climate-change came slowly, as the science became clearer, he contends. "It's been gradual, over the years, as the evidence has accumulated." But evidence of that commitment is hard to find before the 2000 campaign -- he wasn't giving speeches or writing op-eds on the topic, and he certainly wasn't sponsoring legislation. His views on other green issues were pretty abysmal too; the League of Conservation Voters consistently ranked him below 20 percent in its annual survey of political greenness. During the 2000 primary campaigns, when global-warming activists like Stembridge began targeting him, he was giving the standard Republican line: The data are iffy, the costs are too high, we shouldn't do anything yet. That was in late December.

But then, at every rally and every town hall forum, people stood up to ask McCain about global warming. The tag line to their question was always the same: "What's your plan?" And eventually the question seemed to take hold. It was right about then that McCain invited Captain Climate up on stage and, a few days later, promised to appoint a scientific panel that would report back to Congress within a year -- with a plan. "I thought we were all going to drop dead with a heart attack. I mean, we'd seen someone who tried to shut us down with pat, smooth answers in December do a 180-degree turn," says Stembridge. "He became passionate and driven. All of us felt that this was the kind of person we could be excited about following. One guy on our five-person team threatened to quit that day and go to work for him."

By May, McCain was back in Washington, fresh from his defeat in the primaries, and chairing hearings. "One of the great things about the requirements of the electoral process is extensive interaction with the citizenry," he told his fellow senators. "I just finished an unsuccessful, but very enlightening, adventure in that area…. There is a group of Americans who now come to political rallies with signs that say, 'What is your plan?'… I am sorry to say that I do not have a plan because I do not have, nor do the American people have, sufficient information and knowledge. But I do believe that Americans, and we who are policy makers in all branches of government, should be concerned about mounting evidence that indicates that something is happening…I do intend, beginning with this hearing, to become informed, to reach some conclusions, and make some recommendations." McCain-Lieberman was the result of that process.

So chalk one up for the power of people willing to wear funny costumes -- for the power of democracy.

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Photo: Chris Buck

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council