What John McCain Wasn't, and What He Was

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Senator John McCain speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill

Senator John McCain occupies a larger space in the American political landscape than you could possibly expect for a politician who lost a presidential election and, over the course of a congressional career that lasted more than three decades, wrote only one significant piece of legislation (which wound up being overturned by the Supreme Court). But McCain differed from his peers in many ways, some of them admirable, some of them less so, all adding up to an unusually complex figure. Upon his death, we owe it to ourselves to reckon with that complexity.

Over the years I have written many critical things about McCain here at the Prospect and elsewhere, not only because I took issue with his political ideology but also because reporters looked at him and reported on him in terms that were positively worshipful, more so than for any other politician in my lifetime. That perspective on McCain had a number of sources, but two stand out. The first, of course, was a respect for what he had endured in Vietnam: over five years of horrific torture in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," during which he refused early release (offered by the Vietnamese to achieve a propaganda coup, knowing that he was the son and grandson of admirals) to honor the principle that those who arrived before him should leave before him. Especially for reporters who had never served in the military, McCain's suffering produced genuine awe.

The second source of McCain's unusual place in the media was the fact that he worked them like Jascha Heifetz wielding a violin. That's no criticism. Every politician tries to get the best media coverage they can; McCain was simply better at it than any of his peers. He understood what reporters wanted, needed, disliked, and despised, and he used that knowledge to enlist them in creating a mythology around himself (and to be clear, a mythology can contain both truth and fantasy). Above all, he knew that what reporters wanted was to be treated like human beings. Instead of delivering carefully crafted messages to them, he talked to them like one person talks to another, and genuinely enjoyed their company. For so many of them, it was intoxicating.

So they created on his behalf the idea that McCain was a "maverick," a word attached to his name literally thousands of times in print and on the air. Other politicians might buck their party now and again for reasons of ideology or politics, but when McCain did it, it was lauded as an act sprung from his uncommon character, a kind of heroism of which only he was supposedly capable. But if they were too credulous with him, that was their failing, not his.

He did something else unusual: On more than one occasion, he admitted he was wrong. That may have been a media strategy, too; if so, it was certainly a brilliant one, because every time he confessed a sin it seemed to be wiped away. But perhaps because as a young man he had demonstrated enough courage for a few lifetimes, he was willing to admit to being politically craven in a way no other politician would dare. He admitted to pandering to pro-Confederate voters in South Carolina, hiding his true feelings about the Confederate flag when the issue came up during the 2000 primaries. He sought out the endorsement of a rancid right-wing preacher whose beliefs he plainly didn't share, then later rejected the endorsement even at the risk of angering religious-right voters. He eventually acknowledged that it was a mistake to select the spectacularly unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, a decision that could have put the United States and the world in grave peril.

You can say that in each case the problem was what he did in the first place, but it's still worth praising McCain for conceding some of his errors, because it would be awfully helpful if more politicians would do the same. Like many of the things for which McCain was so lauded as a politician, the full story was often more complicated than what was presented in the press; there was an urge on the part of many reporters to believe that in light of his heroic suffering in Vietnam, whatever he did in Congress was heroic, too.

If what I write about him seems a little too forthright about McCain's weaknesses as well as his strengths, I doubt he would object. Unlike some people, he knew that when you decide to enter the political arena, it means people are going to criticize you, and he never seemed to mind that much. When Donald Trump—who avoided going to Vietnam because he obtained a doctor's note testifying that he suffered from debilitating heel spurs—said that he didn't consider McCain a war hero because "I like people who weren't captured," McCain could have hit back, and just about everyone would have taken his side. But he didn't. He decided to be the better man, and just let it go.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump has made McCain look even better, as a politician and a human being. McCain will long be remembered for casting the deciding vote to stop his party from repealing the Affordable Care Act, and if one suspects that a desire to stick a thumb in Trump's eye had something to do with it (McCain had, after all, voted against the ACA multiple times in the past), the millions of people whose health coverage was spared as a result surely don't mind. McCain couldn't stop his party from being taken over by Trump, but he had a brief chance to mitigate the damage, and he took it, knowing he'd be celebrated in some quarters and condemned in others.

So in the end, we can say about McCain that he wasn't the embodiment of all human virtue or the Last Honest Man. He could be just as calculating and ambitious as any of his peers. His beliefs about policy, particularly his relentless militarism, leave much room for criticism. But there were also times when he showed integrity other Republicans couldn't muster. Even as a tide of racist hatred rose around Barack Obama's candidacy in 2008, he refused to indulge it in his own campaign. He never groveled before the infantile bully in the White House like so many in his party.

In other words, while he was far from a perfect man, in his better moments, John McCain could be better than most. That's worth honoring.

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