John McCain legacy
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Opinion

Romanticizing John McCain Is as Problematic as Ridiculing Him

John McCain was one of the few senators you could conceivably immortalize in a comic book without being labeled a propagandist. That’s because John McCain was a politician who became something more: penicillin for our national plague. Reference Frank Bruni’s May 2018 New York Times op-ed for proof; there, Bruni describes McCain battling Donald Trump “with his drying breaths.” Former Governor of Nebraska Bob Kerrey, who served in Vietnam, was quoted, “Trump is in every single way the opposite of John McCain.” But unsurprisingly, the only criticism of McCain offered in that NYT op-ed referred to his comically miscalculated decision to select Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. Surely, there were more foul balls in his 31-year career as a Senator?

The Sunday after McCain’s passing, on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd echoed the now commonplace storyline that McCain represented an anecdote to Trumpism, noting that he “didn’t attack [the media] personally on Twitter.” McCain famously described the media as his “base,” whereas Trump demonizes them as profiters of “fake news.” Though they've both manipulated the press masterfully, it was McCain, like Cicero in Rome, who was more gifted at using patriotism to mold opinion.

In the time between summer of 2015 and August 25, 2018, when the senator died from brain cancer, John McCain became Superman and Donald Trump his Lex Luthor. The two Republicans were then pawned as proxies in a cold war dreamed up by elitist do-gooders in the liberal media and the classless, frog-faced MAGA trolls.

At CPAC last February, the trolls became so seduced by Trump’s anti-McCain rhetoric, they booed the ailing senator with hyena-like shrieks that immediately strengthened the media’s romance with McCain. He became the Ted Williams of the Senate—a universally respected, gritty, temperamental and genuine war hero whose son-in-law Ben Domenech once described as the “last action hero” in a 2008 essay or RedState. There are few who will reject the metaphor of McCain as a legitimate Rambo.
Such is perhaps the greatest paradox of his political life: McCain, once a realist on foreign policy, had become promiscuously involved with neocons who wanted to bomb the Middle East.
This was a man The New Yorker lionized in August as the last residue of “romantic conservatism,” a brand of idealism that views America as a “city upon a hill” which we’ve supposedly lost with his passing. But was he the last conceivably classical conservative? It’s a delicious myth, for sure, and one that some conservatives have taken solace in during a Nietzschean moment in which Trump seems to be squeezing all sentiment from our city upon a hill.

In his battle to morally supersede Trump by representing himself as the inverse, McCain acquired a cloak of invisibility that rendered him for the fuzzy lens of a Frank Capra film. I suppose this is why HBO’s 2018 documentary about his life, For Who the Bell Tolls, avoided the biographical reality of the Arizona senator; McCain’s questionable political evolution from a realist into an incautious interventionist was criminally under-investigated.

Such is perhaps the greatest paradox of his political life: McCain, once a realist on foreign policy, had by the late-1990s become promiscuously involved with Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol and other neocons who wanted to bomb the Middle East into an unwilling series of American satellite states. Even a soulless tyrant like Trump sees no value in this strategy. This is, by the way, where the less impish critics of McCain reside: the anti-interventionist wing of MAGA.
McCain is unquestionably a war hero who withstood a level of torture so inconceivable Sylvester Stallone could have easily coopted it for his Rambo sequel. But, in the era of Trump, he transformed into something of an unassailable god rather than a Cicero or Clinton—the triangulating politician who knew how to play the myth-makers like a military bugle.

The romantic painting of McCain is thus a beautiful deception that’s been tolerated in the war to rid us of our current president. Any necessary rebuke of McCain's foreign policy misdeeds, for example, have been largely blindfolded by the social justice warriors of the right, who view McCain as the symbol of the old republic under the rule of a ginger tyrant.

McCain's neoconservative impulse has been erased from history, a philosophical sickness he used to injure our national interests in the Middle East by promoting the war in Iraq; a miserably miscalculated invasion who McCain (along with Hillary Clinton) is as responsible for as the architects of the war who gifted us with ISIS, a grotesque refugee crisis in Europe and geopolitical advantage to Iran. Ironically, McCain once joked about bombing Iran, or killing them with cigarette imports. What if he had tweeted that?
Any necessary rebuke of McCain's foreign policy misdeeds, for example, have been largely blindfolded by the social justice warriors of the right.
Lest we forget that he ran for president in 2008 by reengineering John McCain, the maverick who dared to broker bipartisanship in 2002 with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and climate change support, as John McCain, calculating candidate who softly embraced the parasites of the Christian right and who signed a Faustian bargain by lobbying for President Bush's endorsement, neoconservative legislative aides on his staff and choosing to fight a hopelessly dumb war like Iraq over serving the American people. In hindsight, a McCain-Palin presidency may have produced more war than Bush-Cheney. As a conservative, it sickens me to admit that I almost voted for a charlatan like Barack Obama.

Then again, the paranoia of “What if?” surrounding McCain’s candidacy in 2008 would ignite a debate that the resistance to Trump has made less fashionable: How do we reconcile John McCain, the overzealous hawk in the Senate, from John McCain the humble war hero. The myth, in his passing, now more than ever, has overtaken the man—an “American Hero” we’ve turned into a patriotic mirage that feels necessary during such a national drought of confidence. In short, we needed John McCain. We needed him badly, to represent a fiction that we're clinging to like the Bibe as Trumpism comes for our souls.

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