The Law of Conservation of Mavericks

John McCain’s recent disavowal of the “maverick” brand has been a little embarrassing for the Arizona senator, because—well, because he’s called himself a maverick on plenty of occasions, including in the subtitle of one of his memoirs.

But it’s also, apparently, a challenge for the press, because of a little-known law governing Washington journalism: at any given time, there must be one, and only one, “maverick” in D.C.

That’s the takeaway of today’s New York Times profile of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who, by virtue of being a conservative Republican who is occasionally willing to negotiate on important legislation with Democrats, gets labeled with the “M” word. We read in the second paragraph that Graham “has carved out a role for himself as this city’s resident maverick.” And then, one graf later:

As the rare member of his party who is consistently willing to cross the aisle, he has filled a niche once occupied by his close friend and mentor, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican.

I picture a secret ritual at which McCain bestowed the Cloak of the One True Maverick upon the shoulders of a kneeling Graham. Sadly, that detail didn’t make it into the story.

Actually, that bit about Graham being “consistently willing to cross the aisle” may be a touch overstated. The Lewis-Poole rankings at, the best measure of where a legislator falls on the liberal-conservative spectrum, don’t show Graham as routinely out of step with his party (though he has moved from being one of the more conservative Republicans to somewhere in the middle of the caucus). His “maverick” credentials rest heavily on his openness to climate change legislation—which is, admittedly, a pretty big deal. An NYT/ClimateWire story last October dubbed him “the next GOP maverick on climate change,” and a Time article from December that declared him “the new GOP maverick in the Senate” led off with global warming.

But just as the press has settled on Graham’s maverick status, it may need to start looking for a new standard-bearer. All the drama in today’s Times story derives from the fact that, while Graham’s maverick-itude has brought him plenty of press attention and bon mots from across the aisle, he has lately reversed course, backing away from his support for that energy bill.

Graham’s reversal, if it holds up, creates some real uncertainty about whether Washington will be able to deal with what is perhaps the most pressing issue now facing us. Almost as importantly, it creates a vacuum of maverick-ness crying out to be filled.

Unfortunately, surveying the current GOP roster, there aren’t a lot of likely candidates: someone with a long-established reputation as a moderate makes for a wishy-washy maverick, and hard-line obstructionists are, well, hard-line obstructionists. Maybe a newcomer could fill the bill? Scott Brown, if you’re reading, get your application ready…

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.