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December 18, 2013

John McCain: The People of Fiji Are "Lovely, Gentle People, Even Though They Used to Eat Each Other"


I wonder what the hell he was talking about that led him to note this tasty historical tidbit.

In fact, he's right, or at least Wikipedia says he's right. Fiji was once called "The Cannibal Isles" and cannibalism was practiced there into the early twentieth century.

The quote comes from a critical, mocking New York Times piece called How John McCain Turned His Clichés Into Meaning. It argues McCain is a walking cliché and also driven by a sense of superiority and outrage. On that particular point, I won't charge the paper with political bias.

This part of the story illustrates some of the phoniness of Washington, DC.

When I walk into John McCain’s office a week before Thanksgiving, he is not at all happy — and seems to be enjoying it quite a bit.

He is sampling none of the usual flavors of upset we tend to associate with the Arizona senator: not the “McCain is bitter” or “get off my yard” varieties, not even the “deeply troubled” umbrage that politicians of all stripes love to assume. Here is a man, instead, who is gleefully seizing an opportunity for outrage.

“I am very angry,” McCain says through a smiling grimace. He hands me a photocopied compilation of old quotes from the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, from back when Democrats were in the minority and Republicans were threatening to enact a rule — the so-called nuclear option — that would require only a 51-vote majority to confirm most presidential and judicial nominations. Turns out Reid believed this was a bad idea when the Republicans were in charge but was a good one now, and McCain is packing bullet points.

“I’m going to go kick the crap out of Harry Reid,” he keeps announcing as we walk from his office to the Capitol. Once on the Senate floor, McCain approaches Reid, puts his hands on the majority leader’s shoulders, smiles and says something I can’t make out from the visitors’ gallery above. Reid smiles back, says a few words in reply and places his hands on McCain’s sides. It looks as if they are dancing.

Minutes later, McCain stands to address the chamber. He is, as advertised, very, very unhappy. Today is a “black chapter in the history of the Senate,” he says, referencing something Reid said back in 2008, as a way of pointing out his hypocrisy. He then goes on to explain that this is as “historic” a vote as he can remember casting and that he feels great “sorrow” for the harm done to the institution on this “sad day.”

After McCain leaves the floor, I ask him what he said to Reid before his speech. “I said, ‘Harry, I’m going to go kick the crap out of you.’ Then he said, ‘John, I would expect nothing less.’ ” McCain grins big to conclude this dark chapter in the history of the United States Senate.

"Kick the crap out of Harry Reid" meant "say some empty words on the Senate floor." But the two seem to be buddies, just trading jibes with one another.

And yet, this is the New York Times, so of course it's steeped in bias.


John McCain is a cliché.

It is not his fault, or not entirely. Many of us become walking self-caricatures at a certain point, and politicians can be particularly vulnerable, especially those who have maneuvered their very public lives as conspicuously as McCain. They tell and retell the same stories; things get musty. They engage in a lot of self-mythologizing, and no one in Washington has been the subject and the perpetrator of more mythmaking than McCain: the maverick, the former maverick, the curmudgeon, the bridge builder, the war hero bent on transcending the call of self-interest to serve a cause greater than himself, the sore loser, old bull, last lion, loose cannon, happy warrior, elder statesman, lion in winter . . . you lose track of which McCain cliché is operational at a given moment. He does, too. “I think I was the brave maverick when I was taking on Bush,” McCain told me, “and then I was the bitter old man when I was criticizing Obamacare.”

Um, this author stupidly takes that as a confession when the much more plausible reading is that McCain is noting, darkly, that the media hailed him as a brave maverick when he was attacking Republicans and then decided he was just a bitter old crank when he criticized President Cargo Cult.

Surely this interpretation occurred to the writer. But he'll pretend it didn't, to avoid quoting something derogatory about his guild, and to make his story's thesis.

If there was any context for the Fijians Are Cannibals line, the writer makes sure not to mention it, to make McCain appear as Old Coot-y as possible:

After his screed on the floor against Harry Reid, McCain hurries back to his office for a scheduled sit-down with a group of dignitaries from Australia. “I love the Aussies!” he declares to me outside his office door, then swings it open and is met with a faceful of them. “Sorry I’m late,” he tells them. “I was just up on the floor kicking the crap out of the Democratic leader.” They all sit down, and McCain mentions that Congress’s approval ratings are now so low “we’re down to paid staffers and blood relatives.” He drops this line so often that probably the only people on the planet who haven’t heard it are in Australia. Everyone laughs, and McCain adds that he recently received a call from his 101-year-old mother, and she’s not happy with Congress, either. “So now we’re down to just paid staff,” he says, to genuine belly laughs. A few minutes later, McCain wants to talk about Fiji, the archipelago in the South Pacific where he says he used to vacation with his family. “They are lovely, gentle people,” McCain says of the Fijians, “even though they used to eat each other.”

McCain might have been making a point (like, sure, Congress can deal pleasantly with each other some day, after all, the Fijians...), but if he was, it is carefully removed from any context.

Most of the rest of the article consists of the writer badgering him into saying bad things about Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. (He changes the subject.)

The writer also gets some juicy quotes from Meghan McCain, using her words to stand in for the things John McCain thinks but cannot say for political reasons. For example:

“I’m really not psyched about going back to Arizona to do another Tea Party election,” Meghan McCain told me. “I honestly don’t know how much more of that I can hear.”


Still... that Fiji quote is sort of funny, I guess. I just wish the writer could be a little more honest about it.


Update: Zombie offers a "True Fact" about Fiji which sounds okay to me so I'm going to count it as "Confirmed."

The King of Fiji in the 1860s was sick of being abused by the British, so he sent a letter to Abraham Lincoln begging him the annex Fiji to the United States -- as a way of freeing the nation from British rule.

The letter was routed to the State Department, where (as far as we can tell) it was assumed to be some kind of practical joke, and the letter eventually fell behind a radiator, unanswered.

About 120 years later, the building was being renovated, and the workers discovered the long-forgotten letter, still there.

Investigations Were Done, and it was determined 12 decades too late that the letter had been sincere, and that Fiji could have and would have been "the other Hawaii" and part of the US if the State Department hadn't been such assholes.

And Now Zombie Clarifies: It did kind of happen, but it wasn't the universally-recognized king.

A one-minute research binge informs me that the story recounted in comment #41 above is a bit more complicated than first reported. The UK and the US were sending competing warships to the Fiji area at that time, rattling sabres over who was going to be dominant in that part of the Pacific. The "king" who offered Fiji to the US was actually a souped-up warlord who was not universally recognized as king by all the islands. Furthermore, he also made the same offer to the Brits, who also initially turned it down.

Later, after the king/warlord bankrupted the islands with typical dictator overspending, the Brits relieved him of the debt on the condition that Fiji become a British colony.


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posted by Ace at 07:22 PM

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