Volume 78 / Number 21 - October 22 - 28, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

John McCain and the demise of the word ‘maverick’

By Bruce Willey

Words evolve like fish and are sometimes just as slippery. But it’s always a little sad to witness a perfectly good word wither and die on the vine of our lush and leafy language. This year, amidst one of the most compelling and important elections in American history, we mourn the passing of another word — “maverick.”

John McCain ambled into the campaign as if he owned the word. And rightly so, in some ways he did. We don’t need to be reminded (again and again…and again) that Senator McCain was a war hero who spent five hard years in a Vietnamese prison camp. Or that his stilted and overwrought walk and mannerisms are the result of bone-swallowing beatings and torture that would make all of us crumble.

Political mythologizing aside, if that doesn’t show some beef-stew maverick-ness, then I don’t what else does. McCain’s years in Congress, as we know (once again), were marked by maverick-sized tussles with his own party that branded him the unbranded while in hot pursuit of greased government pork.

But as it turns out the word originates out of Texas by way of a man named Samuel Augustus Maverick — land baron, lawyer, politician and reluctant cattle rancher.

Maverick refused to brand his cattle, which in Texas in the 1860s was considered a major faux pas, akin, I suppose, to a Republican calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance,” as McCain did when he was still living up to his namesake.

Sam Maverick didn’t brand his cattle, the story goes, because he really couldn’t care less about ranching and the fact that he considered branding an inhumane practice; quaint bovine thoughtfulness when you consider Maverick owned slaves.

Whatever the motivation, his fellow ranchers accused Maverick of being able to claim all the wandering, unbranded cattle as his own, an important consideration before the invention of the barbed-wire fence. So, for lack of a better name, cattlemen began to call unbranded cattle “mavericks” and the word stuck.

Maverick’s ranching antics may have not been to everyone’s taste, but he has more in common with McCain in another historical twist. Though Maverick had participated in the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, Mexico regarded Texas as a rebellious territory, and in 1842 sent troops to show the gringos they were still in charge. Maverick and other Texans tried to flee but were captured and forced on a three-month-long march to Perote, east of Mexico City. Once there, Maverick and his Anglo cohorts endured hard labor and food rations. When Maverick complained about the treatment he was put into solitary confinement.

Like McCain, Maverick was offered his freedom only if he would admit that Mexico had a legitimate claim on Texas. Maverick refused, saying, “‘I cannot persuade myself that such an annexation, on any terms, would be advantageous to Texas, and I therefore cannot say so, for I regard a lie as a crime, and one which I cannot commit even to secure my release.”

Maverick would go on to be a state legislator and became a Texas patriot. For what it’s worth, Maverick also happened to be a progressive Democrat. He died in San Antonio in 1870 holding nearly 60,000 acres of land, and of course all those countless unbranded cows.

So how did McCain come to butcher the good name of a Texas patriot and render his own maverick-ness meaningless? It’s become all too evident that once McCain became the nominee of the G.O.P., a party whose base is the Christian conservatives, his maverick image and the very word itself began to lose all meaning. Sure, McCain is still desperately brash and unpredictable as the grave, as the flippant choice of his maverick-lite running mate Sarah Palin does attest. But there’s a big difference between being tenaciously stubborn and being an unbranded maverick.

As McCain enters the final weeks before the election, he is depressingly conventional — even for a Republican.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines “maverick” as “an unorthodox or independent-minded person: a person who refuses to conform to a particular party or group.” Perhaps the sad lesson in our fractured political composition is that it’s simply impossible to be a true maverick and win an election.

Thankfully, though, with the death and murder of one word comes the hope of a replacement to enter the lexicon. “McCained”: adverb. 1. Referring to a person of singular and restless grit who, through the influence of power and desire to triumph, loses all vestiges of his former self. 2. Referring to a person (usually a patriot) relegated to a footnote in history by succumbing to a dominant ideology that is usually backward in thinking. 3. Referring to the forced betrayal of principles resulting in dangerous conformity.

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