Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'America, You Sexy Bitch' by Meghan McCain and Michael Ian Black

ElectionsPoliticsJohn McCainReligion and BeliefChristianityEntertainmentMormonism

America, You Sexy Bitch
A Love Letter to Freedom

Meghan McCain and Michael Ian Black
Da Capo Press: 309 pp., $26


The 2008 presidential campaign had many unexpected consequences: It spawned the tea party movement, the Palin family TV reality show dynasty and the pundit career of Meghan McCain, daughter of the Republican nominee.

During Arizona Sen. John McCain's ill-fated White House run, Meghan spent a lot of time on the road on his famous "Straight Talk Express." A newly minted Columbia University graduate, she was among the first political offspring to exploit the possibilities of a campaign blog. Pictures of her jumping on hotel beds and her habit of choosing a hip song of the day breathed a sense of youthful vitality into the creaky McCain operation, until then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin vaulted out of the tundra and made diversions like "McCain Blogette" irrelevant.

Afterward, having seen a presidential campaign from the inside, McCain thought she had something to say about politics. And for the last four years, she has been saying it — in a memoir, in a regular column in the Daily Beast and now on MSNBC, where she is a regular contributor. Reflexively conservative on most issues — almost to the point of parody — she departs from Republican orthodoxy in one major way: She is an outspoken supporter of gay marriage. ("My God is not Rick Santorum's God," she writes.)

Her latest book is a strangely conceived project that finds her, once again, traveling the country in an oversize vehicle with an older man. This time, however, the man is not her father and not nearly as old. He is snarky liberal comedian and actor Michael Ian Black, a married father of two who got stoned on Ambien one night and tweeted a message to McCain: "We should write a book together!"

The result is the uneven political travelogue "America, You Sexy Bitch: A Love Letter to Freedom."

Black has a long and varied comedy résumé. He was part of the cast of the NBC show "Ed," the sketch comedy show "The State," has written a children's book and is an occasional contributor to McSweeney's online. To members of McCain's generation, he may be best known for his role in the 2001 cult movie "Wet Hot American Summer" and for his work on the VH1 series "I Love the 80s."

The book opens with the unlikely pair meeting in San Diego at the home of Black's lesbian mother. Their cross-country journey was accomplished mostly in a stuffy RV with haphazard climate control. Driving was provided by "Cousin John," a distant relative of McCain's, and chaperoning by Black's road manager, Stephie. They stopped in 15 American cities, seeking common political ground in contrived setups.

They drank a lot, sweated a lot and argued politics a lot.

They slammed shots in Prescott, Ariz., and gawked at strippers in Las Vegas, which allowed McCain to ruminate in the manner of an undergraduate in a women's study class about whether stripping empowers or exploits. (Ambivalent. Naturally.) They visited the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, a cheesy Yakov Smirnoff show in Branson, Mo. (where both had unrelated epiphanies), and also to Memphis, Nashville, an Army base at Fort Campbell, Ky., the Arab American enclave of Dearborn, Mich., and Meghan's father's office inWashington, D.C.

Taking turns in the text, each relates a version of the "adventures." McCain spends a good portion of her time wondering whether the trip was a mistake. She is given to inadvertently awkward pronouncements such as "I have had a love affair with the Republican Party and its doctrines that began the first day I stepped foot on my father's presidential campaign."

As the (admittedly) privileged child of a rich, powerful family, McCain loathes that stereotype, even while feeding it. She writes that she was shocked at the blowback after abruptly canceling an appearance at a college in Pennsylvania during the tour for her 2009 campaign memoir, "Dirty Sexy Politics," and partying in Las Vegas instead because she'd just been dumped.

"You would have thought I was running for president and called in sick to Iowa," she whines. She left out what many news outlets reported at the time: That her rep said she canceled because of "unforeseen professional responsibilities." Her party animal tweets from Vegas gave her away.

Black worries about seeming like a liberal, gun-hating wimp alongside his pistol-loving, hard-drinking Republican companion. He is by far the more acute observer and better writer. And he should be. He's 13 years older than McCain, a fully formed adult on the cusp of midlife, more sure of his place in the world and far less moody than his then 26-year-old companion. (But, hey, he's an actor, so his self-absorption is right up there with hers.)

Their "relationship" starts out awkward, their first fight occasioned by Black's snorting response to McCain's sincere claim that "freedom isn't free" — an unsurprising cliché from a woman whose family has a proud military history and whose Navy pilot father spent more than five years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war.

Yet it's Black's observation, after meeting McCain's younger brother, Jimmy, that breathes some meaning into the stale slogan. Jimmy is a former Marine who was in Iraq in 2007 as part of the surge that his father passionately advocated. Black reports that Jimmy's back, stomach and feet are messed up, though he uses far stronger language, and that in Iraq, Jimmy "fell into an open latrine pit and didn't shower for four months. His feet and legs got infected and are beyond grim. …Cindy [McCain, Jimmy's mother] tells me he will probably always be in some pain."

Because of McCain's family's prominence, some of her confessions are inherently entertaining. Unlike many Republicans, she roots for President Obama to succeed. She reveals that in 2011 she moved to Los Angeles to launch a talk show, but the project failed. She can't imagine having sex with just one person for the rest of her life. Las Vegas is one of the only places in the country where she feels unjudged.

She's unstinting in her hatred of Karl Rove, whom she blames for spreading rumors in the 2000 presidential primary that her dad fathered an illegitimate black child. (Her younger sister, Bridget, was adopted from Bangladesh.) "Karl Rove is a pathetic excuse for a human being and has never publicly apologized for his cowardice," she writes. Other words she uses to describe theGeorge W. Bush operative are unprintable. Delicious stuff.

To no one's surprise, McCain and Black discover that people of different political stripes can get along if they spend time together and drink enough alcohol.

The book has a few sweet moments and minor revelations (Black discovers that Mormons are into genealogy so they can baptize the forebears who died before Mormonism existed). But mostly, the book is what you'd expect of a project that started with a sleeping pill and a tweet. As Black so aptly puts it early on: "This whole idea is a hot mess."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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