If you watched the television coverage of Sen. John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, you might have noticed a delegate brandishing a hand-lettered sign proclaiming McCain to be: “THE MAVRICK.”

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower

The misspelling was made even more embarrassing by the fact that, just when the sign was being flashed to a worldwide TV audience, McCain was mentioning the need to deal with adult literacy.

Worse than a misspelling, however, is the gross misapplication of the label. Far from a maverick, McCain is a 26-year Washington insider who is now the trusted candidate of America’s corporate establishment. He’s such a reliable conformist to the corporate agenda that, at last count, 177 lobbyists for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, telecommunications giants and other industries form the very core of his campaign. The campaign manager, chief strategist, top economic adviser, foreign policy director and fundraising chairman — lobbyists all.

Yet, there’s a concerted and cynical political effort to dress the candidate as an unruly outsider who’ll defy the corporate order in Washington. McCain bills himself as a “maverick of the Senate,” and Gov. Sarah Palin perkily joins the chorus, describing the ticket as “a team of mavericks.”

Puh-leeze. It’s been my privilege to know some genuine mavericks (including one actually named Maverick), and I can tell you, McCain is not one of them.

The term itself comes from Samuel Augustus Maverick, an early Texas land baron who helped win Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836. Somewhat of a quirky rancher, he steadfastly refused to brand his cattle. As a result, any unbranded steers wandering the range became known as “mavericks.” The term soon entered the vernacular to describe independent-minded people who wore no one’s brand — rebels, nonconformists and dissenters.

In the 1930s, this proud trait flowered in the boldly progressive political life of Maury Maverick, grandson of the old rancher. In 1934, Maury beat the monied establishment of San Antonio to become a member of Congress. An ardent New Dealer, he was a spirited opponent of both entrenched corporate interests and recalcitrant bureaucrats (he coined the term “gobbledygook”).

He returned home to become mayor of San Antonio in 1939, standing for such public works projects as the construction of the now-famous San Antonio River Walk, while also facing down a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob as part of his effort to help empower the city’s Mexican-American population.

Then came Maury Maverick Jr., a feisty state representative in the 1950s and a crusty lifelong fighter for civil liberties. He battled Texas’ oil and gas barons, and had the courage to stand against the racists and red-baiters of the Joe McCarthy period. He died nearly broke in 2003 after decades as a brilliant ACLU lawyer, working for free to help win a little justice for such outsiders and freethinkers as civil rights protesters, conscientious objectors, communists and atheists.

That, my friends, is a maverick.

It’s an insult to those who have earned the moniker — often at great personal sacrifice — to have it usurped by political hucksters. Maury Jr.‘s nephew recently said that if he hears one more time that McCain is a maverick, he’s going to shoot the TV!

And who can blame him? After all, being hoisted toward the presidency on the beefy shoulders of corporate lobbyists is the very opposite of being a maverick. Voting in lockstep with President Bush 90 percent of the time hardly makes you a rebel within your party. Pushing the agendas of insurance corporations, oil drillers, war contractors, investment bankers and the like makes you a meek conformist, not a courageous iconoclast.

McCain’s been branded again and again with the logos of corporate powers. Call him what you will, but be honest — he’s damned sure no maverick.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.