Meghan McCain, talk-show host and daughter of 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, is sitting in a Manhattan restaurant talking about her “horrible” introduction to the savage world of American politics.
In 2000, McCain was a 15-year-old pupil at a Catholic school in Arizona. A nun pulled her out of class to warn her of an incident on her father’s campaign trail. A reporter had asked John McCain what he would do if Meghan became pregnant and didn’t want the baby.
The question tripped up the Arizona senator, who was then fighting George W Bush for the Republican nomination, and a vicious debate about Meghan’s hypothetical abortion erupted. By the time McCain conceded a few weeks later, Meghan’s name was almost as familiar as her father’s.
Nearly 14 years have passed and the experience still rankles. Yet her response was to step straight into the harsh spotlight of American media and politics. After graduating from Columbia University in 2007 with a degree in art history, McCain blogged, tweeted, photographed, wrote and broadcast her politically and sexually charged coming of age, sparking controversy after controversy along the way. (Her six siblings, meanwhile, avoided the cameras.)
Now 29, she hosts the talk show Raising McCain for cable network Pivot, which focuses on the so-called millennial audience, or young adults in the 18-33 age group. It has been a bumpy ride, she concedes. The New Yorker described McCain as a “headache, all empty go-girl aphorisms”. She says she cried when she read a Salon piece calling her “the worst of millennial culture”, someone who “knows little about history or politics – but keeps getting platforms to spout her ignorance”. It was, she says, “maybe the meanest thing anyone’s ever written about me”.
That is quite a statement, for McCain is political dynamite in the Republican party. She is a vocal supporter of gay marriage and the legalisation of marijuana, and takes a nuanced stance on abortion and gun control. There was the time she posted a selfie on Twitter, showing off eye-popping cleavage. The time she cancelled a book tour engagement citing “professional responsibilities” and then tweeted about partying with her “favourite crew of sinners” in Las Vegas. The time she posed (clothed) in Playboy, telling the interviewer: “I love sex, and I love men.”
Inevitably, comparisons are made with Chelsea Clinton, the polished daughter of former US president Bill Clinton and former US secretary of state Hillary. Chelsea, who is three years older than Meghan, works as a special correspondent for NBC News and her family’s foundation. “Her dad was actually president,” McCain says. “Chelsea Clinton is so sophisticated and put together and pretty much the polar opposite of me. I have tattoos. I get drunk and tweet.”
Some Republicans demonise McCain as a scandalous liability. Yet she is irresistible to some sections of a party that many believe has lost its way, especially with young voters. “I always think of myself as the crazy cousin of the political daughters, [the one] you probably want to have a drink with but you maybe don’t want to bring to the serious dinner. I’m certainly comfortable with that,” she says.
“I’ve had so many opportunities to lead a much more private life and I’ve definitely considered it,” she adds, between sips of Coke and bites of a beetroot and goat’s cheese salad. “I don’t know. It’s really fun. The good far outweighs the bad … I have such a good time. Most of the time.”
McCain speaks in hyperbole. She hates “perfect people”, being lectured on how she lives her life, being away from New York, online dating and her looming 30th birthday. She loves America, her life, her work, living in New York, her home state of Arizona and talking about politics. She loves travelling, hiking and horse riding. She loves people who fight with her, talking about politics and people “who don’t give a f***”. She loves taking risks and, she says, doesn’t believe in regrets – but she would undo the Twitter cleavage photo if she could. Although, she adds, “It’s nothing morally compromising. It’s not like I killed a man.”
She spent her twenties entrenched in the battleground of American politics, joining her father on the campaign trail, chronicling her behind-the-scenes view on her blog McCain Blogette. She went on to write three bestselling yet scathingly reviewed books (Dirty Sexy Politics and America, You Sexy Bitch give a flavour of the tone). She wrote columns for The Daily Beast. She worked as a political analyst at the liberal-leaning MSNBC cable news network. It was there, she says, that she had a “come-to-Jesus” moment where she asked herself what she wanted for the next 10 years of her life.
She has concluded that the divisiveness of Washington politics damages ordinary people, not just politicians. “Congress is a bunch of children, and they have a 12 per cent approval rating for a reason,” she says. And, although she hopes there is a place for thinking women in the Republican party and that it can be more accepting of diversity, she warns that if the party doesn’t open up, it will die. “There are some people in this country that just can’t handle the fact that the face of America is changing,” she says. “The white male isn’t the only figure that is running this country any more.
“I am a privileged white daughter of a senator, and I’m totally crazy and racy in the Republican party. If I’m rocking your world …” she trails off. “I just don’t want to be part of divisiveness in America. I don’t think it’s my role.”
Today, McCain is focused on presenting the television programme that she describes as “not your momma’s talk show”. Inspired by the MTV News she watched growing up, she wants it to be “educational but still fun”. Her mission, she says, is to “dig deep into the issues that matter most” to her generation. The first few episodes tackle digital privacy, feminism, dating in the digital age and what happens when your values conflict with those of your family. The 22-minute episodes follow a standard storytelling arc: McCain questions a concept (“I don’t know what being a feminist means any more … I like push-up bras, and sometimes I dress slutty on Halloween”). She calls in the experts (a former porn star, a former Navy Seal, an editor with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In group and a New York City politician). She makes a revelation (she identifies herself as a feminist and wishes other women would join her).
Hillary Clinton has twice turned down a request to appear on the show, McCain says. She does get to interview her father – a prisoner of war in Vietnam – about overcoming adversity and dealing with criticism. “I’d like to think that I’m the type of person that can just let it roll off your skin but I’m not. My dad isn’t either,” she says. “He was almost president, and he still has a hard time with criticism.”
Still in her sights for an interview is Lena Dunham, creator of the hit series Girls. But, says McCain, “I don’t know if I’m her type of girl. She said that she thinks Republicans are like Nazis.”
What does McCain have in mind for the next decade? “I get that [people] want to sit here and call me this entitled senator’s daughter. I get it, but I work my ass off. I work harder than anybody I know,” she says. “I’ve been given more opportunities than the average person but I’ve also taken every opportunity that I have ever been given, period.
“I want to make an impact in this world, and it’s like they’re mad at me for not going clubbing and shopping all day.”
She wants her show to be renewed for another season, and she wants to write more. And as much as she says she is disenchanted with the Republican party and American politics, she dreams of running a political campaign, although she is vague about for whom. “I grew up on campaigns, and I love them,” she says. “It feels like a home. It’s like the womb. I love it. I miss it.”
Emily Steel is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent
To comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org