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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 6, 2010

McCain's ultimate maverick move, denial

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican nominee John McCain was so closely identified with the term "maverick" that it became a national punchline. On the Oct. 4, 2008, edition of Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey reprised her famed imitation of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, closing an opening skit spoofing the vice presidential debate with the line, "Oh, and for those Joe Six-packs out there playing a drinking game at home: 'Maverick.' "

So it came as a surprise to us when McCain was quoted on Newsweek magazine's website on April 3, 2010, saying, "I never considered myself a maverick. I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities."

Debunking this one wasn't a question of "if" but rather "how can we avoid piling on?"

We ignored cases in which Palin or other campaign surrogates used the term on McCain's behalf, sticking instead to instances when McCain himself used it, or when he blessed television advertisements using that term with the words, "I approve this message." (This message, by the way, is a requirement of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which McCain himself spearheaded.)

Here are the instances we found:

• "A maverick, John McCain tackled campaign reform, military reform, spending reform. He took on presidents, partisans and popular opinion. He believes our world is dangerous, our economy in shambles. John McCain doesn`t always tell us what we hope to hear. Beautiful words cannot make your lives better, but a man who has always put his country and her people before self, before politics can. Don`t hope for a better life, vote for one. McCain." -- "Love" campaign ad, July 7, 2008

• "He reformed Wall Street, battled big oil, made America prosper again. He's the original maverick. One is ready to lead -- McCain." -- "Broken" campaign ad, Aug. 5, 2008

• "The original mavericks. He fights pork barrel spending. She stopped the 'Bridge to Nowhere.' He took on the drug industry. She took on big oil. He battled Republicans and reformed Washington. She battles Republicans and reformed Alaska. They'll make history. They'll change Washington. McCain/Palin: real change." -- "Original Mavericks" campaign ad, Sept. 7, 2008

• “If you want real reform and you want change, send a team of mavericks." -- campaign appearance in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 6, 2008

• "And what 'maverick' really means, what this team of mavericks really means is we understand who we work for. We don't work for the party, and we don't work for a special interest, and we don't work for ourselves. We'll work for you and the American people." --campaign appearance in Lancaster, Pa., Sept. 9, 2008

• "Stand by, because change is coming. And real change is coming to Washington, D.C. And we're going to shake things up. And you've got a team of mavericks, a team of mavericks." -- campaign appearance in Lebanon, Ohio, Sept. 9, 2008

• "Can I just mention one other thing? You know there's now this going around that there's differences between myself and Sarah Palin. We're very close. We're both mavericks." -- interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, Oct. 28, 2008

• "When two mavericks join up, we don't agree on everything, but that is a lot of fun." -- campaign appearance in Hershey, Pa., Oct. 28, 2008

• "We get along fine. Sarah is a maverick. I'm a maverick. No one expected us to agree on everything." -- interview with CNN's Larry King, Oct. 30, 2008

And finally:

• Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him -- book by John McCain and Mark Salter, published 2003

In McCain's (slight) defense, we should say that he has on a number of occasions expressed a degree of ambivalence about the title "maverick" -- including his highest-profile use of the word, in his 2008 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. “You know, I’ve been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum," he said. "Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment and sometimes it’s not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”

Meanwhile, in the prologue to the book that used "maverick" in the subtitle, McCain wrote, "I'm 64 years old as we begin this book, which seems a bit old to be routinely described as a maverick. American popular culture admits few senior citizens to its ranks of celebrated nonconformists. We lack the glamorous carelessness of youth and risk becoming parodies of our younger selves. Witnessing the behavior can make people uncomfortable, like watching an aging, overweight Elvis mock the memory of the brash young man who had swaggered across cultural color lines."

That's not exactly an aggressive embrace of the term. But even if McCain is now listening more closely to his inner ambivalence about the term, it cannot erase the eagerness with which his 2008 presidential campaign touted that particular characteristic as a major selling point for candidacy. So we rate his statement that "I never considered myself a maverick" to be Pants on Fire!

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Newsweek, "The McCain Mutiny: A maverick fights for his political life—and his soul," posted April 3, 2010,

CNN, transcript of Larry King interview with John McCain, Oct. 30, 2008.

New York Times, "McCain Is in Hershey but the Tone Isn’t Sweet" (Caucus blog post), Oct. 28, 2008.

Real Clear Politics, transcript of Sean Hannity interview with John McCain, Oct. 28, 2008.

Wall Street Journal, "Dueling Change Claims Become Latest Battleground" (Washington Wire blog post), Sept. 6, 2008.

Federal News Service, transcript of John McCain campaign event in Lebanon, Ohio, Sept. 9, 2008 (accessed via Lexis-Nexis)

McCain for President, "Original Mavericks" ad, Sept. 7, 2008.

McCain for President, "Broken" ad, Aug. 5, 2008.

McCain for President, "Love" ad, July 7, 2008.

John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him, published 2003.

Chicago Sun-Times, "Tina Fey as Sarah Palin nails it again on 'Saturday Night Live' Debate skit" (Lynn Sweet blog post), Oct. 4, 2008.

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McCain's ultimate maverick move, denial

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