The Myth of John McCain

The Myth of John McCain
Illustration: Jim Cooke, Photos: Getty :

John McCain is dead. How will he be remembered? How should he be remembered? These are two separate questions, which is fitting, because there were always two John McCains: the vision of a selfless, honorable statesman who wasn’t afraid to fight the establishment, and the one that the rest of us actually got, which was none of those things.

We already have an indication of how to answer the first question from the plethora of tributes pouring in from McCain’s political allies and former opponents such as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, not to mention McCain’s many, many friends in the media.

And indeed, for much of his career (and particularly after his 2000 presidential bid), the media played a willing role in helping McCain to craft his reputation as a political “maverick” and honorable statesman. There’s a simple reason for this, apart from his status as a war hero: McCain was always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.

For this, he was rewarded with a shower of appreciation for doing the bare-ass minimum, such as when he shot down supporters at a town hall in 2008 who attacked then-Senator Barack Obama. (Even that incident is more complicated than you might remember.) And no one appreciated the media’s desire for a drama-filled narrative more than McCain himself; when the GOP nearly repealed the Affordable Care Act last year, he concealed his position until the moment he actually cast his vote. And before he voted to help sink the bill, he told reporters: “Watch the show.” The “show” was healthcare coverage for 22 million people.

Of course, McCain’s willingness to do that bare-ass minimum, rare as it was, did set him apart from his Republican colleagues at times. He bucked his party after 9/11 by opposing the use of torture; in one of the last major votes of his life, he urged the Senate to reject the confirmation of CIA director Gina Haspel, who oversaw torture.

McCain was implicated in the Keating Five scandal early in his Senate career, with the official Senate report finding that his conduct “reflected poor judgement.” Later, he became a fierce advocate for campaign finance reform, leading the way with liberal Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. It’s questionable how effective it actually was, but in a post-Citizens United world, it can be seen as, at the very least, an attempt to head off the supremacy of donors in the political process.

That these policy stances all grew out of McCain’s reaction to his personal history—being tortured during the Vietnam War; his career nearly ending over political contributions; realizing his death was imminent when he voted down the ACA repeal effort that would have resulted in countless deaths—doesn’t lessen them. But these moments were few and far between, and it is here that we reach the second question: How should we remember John McCain?

We know what his legacy will be to most people: that of a hero and a patriot, and someone who put country over party. The fact that McCain has died while Donald Trump is president doesn’t hurt that narrative, either. But the fact that those who love McCain the most will be the ones who write his legacy does not change the fact that the sum total of his career was harmful to the country and the larger world around it.

Because a solemn respect for war and soldiers is the most bipartisan area of agreement in this country, McCain’s history as a prisoner who was tortured during the Vietnam War is the topline of his obituary. It is largely the reason he was able to have a career in politics in the first place. McCain unquestionably experienced great suffering in Vietnam; whatever your thoughts on the war, his time there is a real and substantial part of his legacy. But we cannot forget that, despite such a deeply personal experience with the brutality of an unnecessary war, McCain was the Iraq War’s biggest, loudest cheerleader outside of the Bush administration, using his war hero status to lend credence to the invasion and subjecting another generation of soldiers to another horrible, pointless conflict.

The New York Times wrote in a 2008 review of McCain’s actions and statements after 9/11:

Within hours [of 9/11], Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”

He pushed the war even after it became clear to all but those with the rosiest-colored glasses that it was an abject failure. McCain only admitted in his final memoir, written when he was practically on his deathbed, that the war “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

Despite recognizing that this adventure in regime change which helped to destabilize an entire region and resulted in the deaths of well over a million people was a “mistake,” however, McCain decided not to take the lessons of that colossal failure with him. He continued his nearly career-long desire for a war with Iran by praising President Donald Trump’s “strategy” in sabotaging the Iran nuclear deal. (It says much that the last honor of McCain’s life which was bestowed up on him was his fellow senators’ decision to name the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 after him.)

The Iran deal was not the only time where McCain found common cause with Trump, with whom he’s feuded for years. Unlike his role in sinking the repeal of Obamacare, McCain was one of the key votes to support the Trump tax bill last December, which will undeniably hurt any American who isn’t very rich. His vote for a hastily written bill that will drastically increase the deficit also came after over a decade of concern trolling about the deficit and months of pleading for a return to “regular order” in the Senate. The tax law McCain voted for also killed the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, the same law McCain had gotten so much credit for saving just months earlier.

McCain also helped Trump put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, whining that Democrats might try to block him after McCain himself said during the 2016 campaign that the Republicans would be unified in blocking anyone Hillary Clinton might put up for the job. In all, McCain voted with the Trump administration’s stated position 83 percent of the time, despite the fact that he has known for over a year that he was dying and would not ever have to face angry Republican primary voters again.

An appreciation of McCain also wouldn’t be complete without noting that he helped to normalize the far right element of the Republican Party with his selection of then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. McCain only disclosed in the aforementioned memoir that he regretted his choice of Palin. (He said his own personal preference would have been former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman—someone just as fervent about the Iraq War as McCain himself was.) But as with so many other decisions made over the course of his career, McCain’s choice was driven by political expediency and his loyalty to a party that has continuously moved further and further right after McCain’s campaign gave Palin a national platform.

McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.

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