Point Austin: More Mavericks

You need a Texas scorecard to sort out the pretenders from the real thing

Point Austin
Everybody wants to be a maverick.

First, a correction and apology. Last week I mistakenly attributed a passage about the political abuse of the term "maverick" to Austinite Fontaine Maverick as the sister of Maury Maverick Jr., the grand old man of Texas politics and journalism who passed on in 2003. (See "Capitol Chronicle," Feb. 7, 2003.) Turns out Fontaine is Maury's niece, and the Maury she was quoting is her very much alive brother (to whom I extend an apology as well).

Fontaine's generation, like her uncle's before her, has had it up to here with Sen. John McCain's pretensions to being a "maverick" – that is, somebody brave enough to defy entrenched political power, whatever the consequences. That's a Maverick family tradition stretching back to Samuel Augustus Maverick (Maury Jr.'s great-grandfather), the South Texas patriarch and rancher who declined to brand his cattle. (Hence the unbranded wanderers were dubbed "mavericks.") The name became a Texas political honorific because of the literal bravery of Maury Maverick Sr., the San Antonio mayor who faced down the Klan, and that of Maury Jr., who in his state House seat defied the racists and the red-baiters of the McCarthy era (1950-56). He recalled the experience as worse than his combat service in World War II. "In the final analysis," Maury Jr. said later, "the worst thing about it wasn't the bad guys, but the good guys. ... That was the thing that almost finished me off. It was the nice people that either capitulated to it or kept quiet."

For the record, I made the mistake because I'd found the Fontaine excerpt online but unsourced, presumed she was citing Maury Jr., and only afterward found the original posting on the Rag Blog, that local compendium of all things progressive (definitely worth surfing). Fontaine set me straight via e-mail, adding: "There are many differences between Maury Maverick and McCain – the most recently manifested was the cynicism McCain showed in his move to get Sarah Palin on the ticket. [It] is pure political cynicism. There was not a cynical bone in my uncle's (or grandfather's) body. He would be appalled at giving away good governance to curry favor with the radical religious right."

The family tradition lives on.

Words Have Meanings

I repeat that story this week not only in homage to the Maverick family but because the Republican Party, McCain, and now Sarah Palin are continuing to appropriate the family name to frankly dishonest ends. Even shameless GOP hack William Safire imagined (in Sunday's New York Times) that Sam Maverick "is proudly sitting up in his grave" at the Republican identity theft. As the real Mavericks are saying, baloney.

Words have lives of their own, of course, and the historical struggle over "maverick" was probably lost forever either during the era of the Fifties TV Western or when the Dallas basketball team was baptized. But now McCain, in a shameless effort to steal Barack Obama's thunder, is calling himself and his running mate the "Original Mavericks." Bad enough that McCain, who enthusiastically supported the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq (demanding only more of the same), is still playing this dishonest gambit, but now the GOP campaign claims that Palin "stopped the bridge to nowhere" – the notoriously wasteful Ketchi­kan bridge, sponsored by disgraced Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens.

Like her supposed opposition to "earmarks," that claim is false; by the time Palin was governor, Congress had already killed the bridge and Palin had nothing to say about it, except to spend the federal largesse elsewhere. Indeed, the entire state of Alaska (with less population than an average con­gressional district or the city of Austin) is a giant homage to federal and state welfare, particularly earmarks. If Palin were indeed a "maverick," she would have informed her fellow Alaskans that the era of living off the public dole was over – at which point the recall petitions would have buried Juneau.

Earn Your Nickname

It's worth remembering – it would seem to be hard to forget – that presidential elections in our mass-media era are generally not decided on the basis of "facts" or "issues." If that were true, the last two would have turned out quite differently. At the moment, in a year when both the issues and demographics are again working heavily in the Democrats' favor (witness the landslides building in congressional elections), the Obama/Biden campaign is losing the media battle over symbols: "change," gender, reform, and now, "mavericks." The national press has a crush on Palin, and she's successfully playing hard to get – I'd hardly rest my hopes of any serious deglamorization on ABC's feckless Charles Gibson, officially designated for her first big interview. But there's plenty of time for the glow of novelty to diminish and the central campaign question to return to "four more years of Bush?" Answer: an Obama/Biden victory.

I hesitate to award the epithet of "maverick" to any politician who rises to the popular level of a presidential campaign. I know too well what real mavericks like Maury Jr. pay, in career and life chances, for their independence, courage, and occasional sheer cussedness. But of the four current candidates, only one stuck his neck out and risked his political future when it really mattered, by defying the prevailing winds and public approval on the central national controversy of the decade. When all Republicans and most Democrats were too afraid to defy a popular president and national war hysteria, Barack Obama stood up against the war in Iraq. In the short and long run, they were proven wrong and he was proven right. Obama's neither a saint nor the messiah, but he's the only candidate in this race who can truthfully claim to have been a maverick. That's good enough praise for me.

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