John McCain: Honorable Man, Respectable Politician, America's Maverick

Any peacenik can tell you that John McCain thought exit strategies were for wusses when he voted for George W. Bush’s Iraq war or sang “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. But he sure did one hell of a job of managing his own goodbye. For years to come, Americans—cranky peaceniks included—will remember McCain exactly the way he wanted to be remembered. How many figures in public life as contentious as he was can make that claim?

On August 25, 2018, the Arizona senator lost his battle with brain cancer, months after casting a deciding vote that will be celebrated over and over again in the coming weeks. That’s why we mean it admiringly when we say that McCain reacted to his July 2017 glioblastoma diagnosis in about the same way Beethoven did to realizing he’d gone deaf. He knew he’d literally never hear the Ninth Symphony, but that didn’t stop him from composing it anyway and conducting its premiere. 

Since McCain was a politician, not a musician, the tools at his disposal were less ethereal. He was always more of an “Anchors Aweigh” and “Columbia, The Gem of The Ocean” kind of guy anyway. Nonetheless, everything about his conduct in the last year or so of his life, from his defiant thumbs-down vote on the Senate floor against Obamacare repeal to his well-wrought (by veteran McCain scribe Mark Salter) valedictory book, The Restless Wave, amounted to a work of art. Its subject, or subjects: “What America Meant to John McCain; What John McCain Ought to Mean to America.”
In every important way, what America meant to McCain – the son and grandson of admirals, and the “Hanoi Hilton’s” most famous POW during his five and a half years of often brutal captivity in Vietnam – was the opposite of everything ostensibly patriotic that Donald Trump has ever spewed from his mouth or farted with his eyes. So it’s no wonder that Trump’s presidency was so key to defining, or redefining, what McCain ought to mean to America. Banning Trump from his funeral was extraordinary proof that McCain knew that well enough to spell it out in neon.

Nonetheless, everything about his conduct in the last year or so of his life amounted to a work of art.
Remember, as a military man (Annapolis, Class of ’58), he had reverence for procotol literally drilled into him. Trashing his Commander-in-Chief— any Commander-in-Chief—was as alien to his DNA as spitting on Old Glory. President Hillary Clinton, whom he quite liked, would certainly have been an honored and grieving guest at his obsequies. So would President Bernie Sanders. So would President Jeb Bush or any other Republican.
In effect, without using the word, McCain was labeling Trump’s presidency illegitimate. Or if not that, a worse insult to democracy than McCain’s values would allow him to tolerate, outweighing even his virtually Pavlovian respect for the presidency as an institution. No doubt to some of his GOP colleagues’ fury and others’ “You go, John” secret approval, the obvious further implication was that the nation’s legitimate conservative tradition now reposed in McCain’s coffin, not POTUS’s vacant pew at National Cathedral. Mike Pence will attend instead, although you wouldn’t put it past Trump to find an excuse to hustle Pence out of the country to avoid validating the indignity. 

Minus the drama of his end-game antagonism to Trump and Trumpism, McCain’s death would almost certainly feel less resonant: a melancholy moment, for sure, but not a stark summons to the GOP’s increasingly vestigial conscience. Going by the chapter in The Restless Wave about his cordial but jousting relationship with Teddy Kennedy, he clearly hoped posterity would see him as the Republican equivalent of the Senate’s ultimate liberal lion. But he was hardly Kennedy’s equal as a legislative giant.
We have to ask: What if he’d made it to the White House?
His best claim to co-authorship of a consequential law was 2002’s McCain-Feingold Act, whose campaign-finance reforms were largely gutted by SCOTUS’s Citizens United decision just over half a dozen years later. His most effective and admirable contributions to U.S. government policy didn’t involve rounding up a majority of his colleagues to vote with him – as when, for instance, he endorsed then President Bill Clinton’s decision to normalize our diplomatic relations with Vietnam. The old Arkansas draft-dodger might very well not have risked taking that overdue step without McCain the genuine war hero, ex-POW, torture victim, and rock-ribbed right-wing patriot backing him up. 

Along the way, and especially once he converted it into his brand during his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain also turned the epithet “maverick” into such a cliché that we might as well bury the word along with him. However erratically and/or conveniently he lived up to the billing, the Senate was a good arena for setting himself apart that way. Still, we have to ask: What if he’d made it to the White House? 

Partly because he understood economic policy less well than most of us understand Klingon, and partly because he wasn’t that much more popular in the GOP Senate caucus than Bernie Sanders was and is on the other side of the aisle, our guess is he’d have been a bad and cantankerous president in peacetime. Then again, that could be a moot point. We’re also pretty sure he’d have remained a peacetime POTUS for all of 20 minutes after being sworn in.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t underline how much “America’s honor” was an idea McCain believed in to the marrow of his bones.
In fact, a notional President McCain’s reaction to 9/11 might have made George W. Bush’s atrociously bungled Middle East misadventure look tame. Why stop at Baghdad, when we can go on to Teheran? On the other hand, President McCain would never have signed off on torture as an intelligence tool. 

In The Restless Wave, he more than once called such tactics “a stain on America’s honor.” We’d be remiss if we didn’t underline how much “America’s honor” – a moving but vague concept at the best of times, and one that the Trump era has turned into obscene and obscure nonsense – was an idea McCain believed in to the marrow of his bones. 

What might have made him a saber-rattling menace in the White House was that he also believed America’s moral credit on the international stage was unlimited and inexhaustible, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Even in his final book, McCain shied away from confronting the worst sin of his political life. As he must have known, choosing Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008 made a mockery out of his “Country First” slogan. Only a cravenly opportunistic politician looking for a Hail Mary pass to offset Obama’s surging appeal would have risked placing someone so nightmarishly shallow and unqualified a heartbeat away from the Oval Office on his frantic advisers’ say-so.

On top of that, as he also must have known, giving Palin the national prominence she so richly didn’t deserve did a great deal to make Trump’s 2016 candidacy plausible and his victory possible. She was the first mainstream-party candidate on a national ticket to identify and exultantly cater to the right-wing voters who don’t see ignorance, vicious slander, or unhinged prattle as a disbarment from the highest office in the land, at least so long as the liberal elites they hate are discombolated by the prospect. Like another inept and foolish king crowned long ago by a self-appointed martyr, Trump owes a lot to the GOP’s froth-lipped Joan of Arc for showing him the way. 

True, McCain did manage to offend Palin by admitting in The Restless Wave that he regretted not going with his gut and picking his Senate pal (and former Democrat turned independent) Joe Lieberman instead. He caved because that genuinely maverick-y choice would have enraged the GOP’s base every bit as much as selecting Palin thrilled them, reminding us that McCain was only a rebel when being one looked like a winning strategy. But the mystery of his devotion to Lieberman, one of the smarmiest, most disingenuously weasely – though not worst – U.S. Senators of our lifetime, is a conundrum he took to his grave with him. 

It’s not the only one. John McCain has more than earned a gravesite salute from his 320 million compatriots, if only because he turned down early release from the Hanoi Hilton to stick by his fellow POWs when the North Vietnamese thought freeing an admiral’s son might be good PR. That’s a level of stoic patriotism and stony valor that very few of us have -- or will, hopefully, ever be called upon to display. Even so, we won’t object if at least some of you feel tempted to tuck your other hand behind your back and privately give him the finger. 

We think a friend of ours said it best recently on Facebook, the new social-media old folks’ home. “Courage and venality, limitless self-sacrifice and overweening ego, extraordinary bravery and cheap expedience: John McCain, American.” For better or worse, but mostly for better, McCain himself never knew of any honorific more noble than that summary’s last word. RIP, and we mean it, man.

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