There are a lot of really dumb, poorly illustrated and poorly written children’s books in the world and, fortunately, I haven’t read them all. So there’s no way I can say with complete certainty athat My Dad, John McCain is the absolute worst children’s picture books ever published, but, after reading it a couple of times, it sure is tempting to say so.
This is due in large part to just how incredibly pointless the book is.
Nobody young enough to be addressed by first-time author and 23-year-old professional campaign blogger Meghan McCain’s simple, declarative sentences is old or mature enough to be told John McCain’s life story which, even in this scrubbed up and sanitized version, prompts questions about one of America’s most horrible wars, and the horrors that occurred during it.
Nobody old enough to hear any kind of story about Veitnam deserves to be told such a scrubbed up and sanitized version of McCain’s life story, which omits everything unflattering about the man. This is, in a sense, an inappropriate campaign speech delivered by Meghan McCain, to people who can’t vote. (The storyline is roughly that of the biographical film that introduced nominee McCain at this years Republican National Convention, covering, as it did, McCain’s Navy experience and current run for the presidency, ignoring almost everything in the thrity-some years between).
And oddest of all, the book’s shelf life is only two months. It was released in early September, and covers McCain’s life right up until the RNC (which actually hadn’t yet occurred when it was published), ending with a cliffhanger: “It takes a great man to be president of the United States, and I know that nobody will work harder than my dad to convince people that he’s the right person for the job,” the last page begins, beneath a picture of McCain being showered with red, white and blue confetting and balloons.
But on November 4, this book will be completely out of date. McCain will either have achieved his life’s ambition and become president of the United States, necessitating a pretty major update to his biography, or he will be righteously crushed in a Barack Obama landslide, becoming a sad footnote in American history—the one-time war hero and longtime member of congress who lost an extremely bitter primary fight against George W. Bush, swallowed his pride and spent eight long years kissing his one-time foeman’s ass in the hopes of getting a second chance, and then lost again having incorrectly judge the mood of the American people over those eight years.
Not that the contents aren’t disagreeable on their own; it’s just rare to see a major book with such an existential crisis attached. In every presidential election, there are whole cottage industry’s of one-election-cycle-only cash-in book’s, but they tend to spend a bit longer trying to cash in, and, in many cases, have a potential longer shelf-life. Whether Obama becomes the next president or is merely a U.S. Senator, The Obama Nation will still be relevant (or as relevant to its intended audience as it ever was, I guess), but Meghan McCain’s “I hope my dad becomes president next month” book?
The “Why does this book even exist?” is particularly noteworthy, I think, because it’s not just by a small, fringe publishing house. It’s from a Simon and Schuster imprint.
The book is 28 pages long, and McCain’s prose is accompanied by graphite-on-bristol illustrations by Dan Andreasen, who has a rather long resume, including illustrations for some American Girl books and classic works of literature. The pencils are colored digitally, but have the effect of looking like colored pencils, giving the book a somewhat amateurish, air-brushed quality, a filter of unreality over realistic art.
This is no doubt underscored by the fact that the McCain we see is a younger, fitter, idealized version of McCain. The bulk of the book is set before his hair goes white, but even in the seven or so illustrations of his life set after the 1980s, McCain looks pretty un-McCain-like.
I don’t want to bash Andreasen’s work too badly here. It’s not very good, but, at the same time, it’s got to be hard to draw a McCain bio in this penciled-version-of-photorealism style. You don’t want the guy looking like the dessicated corpse of a gnome in a suit and tie that he looks like in HDTV and press photos, but you can only cover up so many wrinkles and bulges before the 2008 McCain ends up looking too much like the 1988 McCain.
The art consists mostly of wide, double-paged spreads, and the scenes shift from those of desk tops littered with photos and medals and props relevant to the time period to dramatizations of scenes from McCain’s life: There he is playing football (Holy shit, before faceguards were invented?!), there he is swimming away from a crashed plane, there he is sitting in a brown prison cell in Vietnam, there he is outside the capitol building, his head cocked like that off a puppy, for some reason.
As for Meghan McCain’s writing, it’s hard to evaluate beyond stating the obvious: I have no idea who this is supposed to be directed at, since it’s not fit for children or adults.
“There are a few things you need to know about my dad, and one of them is that he would make a great president,” she begins the book, “But to know what makes him great, you have to hear his story first.”
Then we hear that his father and grandfather were Navy admirals, and that McCains have fought in every American war since the revolutionary war. We hear about how did poorly in school, and of some dramatic events of his military career: One time, his engine gave out and he crashed in a bay and had to swim away. An accident on his aircraft carrier resulted in an all-day inferno that it was a miracle he even survived (Meghan McCain doesn’t say it was perhaps because he had a greater destiny to fulfill, as his RNC film stated).
Which finally brings us to the climax of the McCain biography: “One October day he had to fly a very complicated mission. He had flown a lot of dangerous missions before, so he was sure he’d be okay on this one too. But he wasn’t. He’d just dropped his bombs on the target when a missile blew the right wing off of his plane.”
This might be the point where a kid, excited by all the talk of planes and bombs, might raise his hand and ask about the where McCain was, what the target he just dropped a bomb on was, and who exactly he was fighting and why.
These details get left out. A few pages earlier, we’re told, “He still had his heart set on flying missions in the Vietnam War. He wanted to fight for his country, just like his father and grandfather. He wanted to do great things, just like them.”
I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone who fought in a war that had ended before I was even born, especially since so many of them had no desire to do it in the first place, but it’s kind of disappointing to think of the war being used like this in a bed-time story of a presidential candidate’s bio—an excuse to restate the fact that our hero never gives up.
I understand Meghan McCain and Andreasen are trying to tell a story to kids here, but if McCain’s life story involves dropping bombs on people in Vietnam during the war, is it one we should be telling kids? He wasn’t exactly fighting to save Britain and France from Hitler or fighting against King George to create a new nation or anything.
Even McCain’s torture is glossed over in an odd way: “My dad and the other prisoners were treated badly. He didn’t get the right kind of medical care for his broken bones, and the food was really bad.” Put like that, five and a half years doesn’t sound all that bad. Oliver Twist had it rougher.
From there, we race through his life.
“After we got home, my dad met and married my mom, Cindy. They had met in 1984, and then came my brothers, Jack and Jimmy. Finally, my mom and dad adopted my sister, Bridget, when she was a baby.” No mention of McCain’s first wife, or his other three kids…is divorce really something to be treated like collateral damage and torture?
Because he never gives up, he won the first election he ran in, and while he was in congress ever since Meghan was a kid, he always wanted to do more to help his country.
“I was a freshman in high school when my dad asked my brothers and sister and me if we thought he should run for president in 2000. After a family meeting, we all decided that it would be a good idea!”
Despite campaigning hard and meeting a lot of people, he didn’t get enough votes to win the nomination, because of push-polling in South Carolina suggesting he had fathered a black baby. Just kidding! That’s not in there. He just didn’t get enough votes. No mention of who it was who beat him, but perhaps Bush, Karl Rove and especially Dick Cheney are just a little too scary for little kids to be introduced to at such a young age.
It hardly mattered, because McCain “was proud of how hard he’d worked. And,” Meghan McCain writes, “We were really proud of him too!”
Eight years later he tried again, and even though things looked bad and he was out of money and no one said he could do it, he didn’t give up, the people in New Hampshire liked him, and in “September 2008, the Republican Party had a big meeting” and he was officially chosen to be the guy to lose to the Barack Obama. Huzzah!
And that’s the whole book.
Short of the picture of McCain hugging Drew Barrymore in E.T. on the cover, and a drawing of a photo of McCain and Meghan at one of her graduations, there’s little interaction between the two, or insights into what kind of father he is. Which is pretty weird, given the book’s title and the fact that it was written by his daughter, one of the few people who know of McCain as a real person and not just a biographical sketch with some campaign slogans thrown in. This is a biography that anyone on the McCain campaign could have written, and is therefore even less interesting than it might appear to be from its title and cover.
One percent of the net proceeds go to charity Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, so I suppose some good may come of it in the remaining month during which it will be relevant, but at $16.99, you’re better off just donating the money right to the fund, as there’s nothing within the covers you haven’t heard elsewhere before.
Too ugly and serious for little kids, the only child I can imagine giving this book to would be young Sasha Obama, just to annoy her parents.
—A couple of pages of art can be seen here, at the book’s official site.
—This is why I’m hesitant to say anything terrible about Dan Andreasen; regardless of how this book looks, the man can really draw, and like a good professional illustrator, he can do it in a variety of styles.
—And here’s an interesting write-up about Meghan McCain’s media persona from Slate.com. Megan McCain in 2028!