Originally appeared in The Villager, New York City, Obama.com, and GT Weekly, Santa Cruz, CA.
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…and again) that Senator McCain was a war hero that spent four hard years in a Vietnamese prison camp. That when he was offered his freedom he turned it down to let those who’d been imprisoned longer go free. Or that his stilted and overwrought walk and mannerisms is 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, and again, and again), were marked by maverick-sized tussles with his own party that branded him the unbranded. Until this year, I’ve always held a rather spongy spot for Senator McCain. Without a doubt, the world would still be a better place had McCain won the 2000 GOP nomination instead of Bush, who administered an exquisite Roveian torture on McCain that disfigured his name and reputation during the primaries.
But they couldn’t take away the maverick in McCain. In fact it grew as he slipped further into his role as the unfettered senator in hot pursuit of greased government pork. All fine and good, all very maverickesque, I suppose, even for a liverish-looking snowbird with a comb-over.
Yet it’s easy to forget where maverick came from in the first place and what it’s doing in our lives. As a surfer, I’m afraid the first association that comes to mind is Maverick’s, the heavy, 25-foot-plus waves that break off the Half Moon Bay coast. Maverick’s got its name back in 1961 from a dog (by the same name) that swam out to the break with its owner. Dog-paddling into the fury of the roiling ocean exemplifies the notion of maverick, at least in the canine world.
But as it turns out the word originates, in part, from the animal kingdom. Maverick comes 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 1860’s 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 that 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. It was reported that Maverick got into many a heated, six-shooters-drawn fights over the ownership of unbranded herds that might or might not have been his.
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 the prison town of Perote, east of Mexico City.
Maverick and his Anglo cohorts were given hard labor and endured 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 become known as 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 maverick-ness meaningless? It’s all too evident that once McCain became the GOP’s nominee, once his own party branded him, 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 suspense leading up to the last debates attests and more importantly, the grave, flippant choice of his maverick-lite running mate Sarah Palin. Yet there’s a big difference between being plain old stubborn and being a maverick.
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.” McCain has shown that he is not only a flip-flopper, but a sell-out to boot. Perhaps the sad lesson in our fractured political make-up is 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 of another to enter the lexicon. McCained: verb. 1. A person of singular and restless grit who, through the influence of power and desire to triumph, loses all vestiges of their former self. 2. A person (usually a patriot) relegated to a footnote in history by succumbing to a dominant ideology that is notably backward in thinking. 3. Forced betrayal of principles resulting in dangerous conformity and conventionality.