In the tragicomic Shakespearean farce that is the reign of our insane clown president, there may be no more puzzling or frustrating figure than John McCain.
The following essay was written before tonight’s announcement that Senator McCain has brain cancer. That revelation alone might answer many of the questions below, or render them moot. If so, that will be a tragedy of a different kind.
Heroism is a term thrown around very recklessly in our culture. But by any standard, everyone other than Donald Trump can see that John McCain is a genuine American hero. As a naval aviator and prisoner of war, McCain sacrificed more for his country than most of can even fathom. But the aged senator into whom that young pilot morphed has been maddeningly quiet at a time when his country needs him again, more than ever, inasmuch as he is one of very few Americans best positioned to stop this madness.
As if scripted, McCain’s story cleaves neatly into three distinct acts. What remains to be written is how that story will end, and whether Johnny Mac will muster one final moment of courage and glory on behalf of his country, or go out a pale shadow of the towering figure he once was, or—as tonight’s news portends—be taken from us precisely at the moment we need him most.
I count myself among that large majority of Americans who are not worthy to carry John McCain’s jockstrap. The kind of moral and physical courage, tenacity, and sheer selflessness that he showed as a POW in Vietnam is beyond the ken of most mere mortals. It is the fundamental formative experience at the core of his public persona, the bedrock on which his subsequent political career was built, and—even now—still the source of his enormous moral authority. And rightly so.
But early on there were precious few signs that his military career would play out that way. Indulge me in a brief recap, as it’s germane to what follows.
McCain was born into naval aristocracy, the son and grandson of four-star admirals, but that pedigree appeared to have weighed heavily on him—not an unheard of paradigm. He graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis thanks to a reputation as an incorrigible rebel often at war with his superiors. (A maverick, if you will.) Despite that low class ranking, he managed to squeak into a coveted spot in naval aviation and became an A-4E attack pilot.
What happened next is the best-known part of his story. Deployed to Southeast Asia, Lieutenant Commander McCain was shot down over Hanoi, beginning a harrowing five-and-a-half year odyssey as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. Ejecting from a high performance military jet inflight is so dangerous that it’s sometimes called “committing suicide to avoid killing yourself”…..not to mention when it’s on fire and plummeting to the earth over enemy territory. McCain broke both arms and a leg when punching out, then landed in a lake where he almost drowned. His captors beat and bayoneted him (to be fair, he had been dropping bombs on them), then indefensibly denied him medical treatment, eventually providing only rudimentary care that left him with severe lifelong injuries.
During his brutal captivity—much of it in Hỏa Lò prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”—McCain suffered horrific torture, deprivation, and other inhuman hardships. By all accounts he was an inspirational leader to his fellow POWs, and a pain in the ass to his jailers, echoing in much more severe circumstances his behavior at the Naval Academy. Knowing their prisoner’s history (by 1968 McCain’s father was Commander in Chief, Pacific Command—CINCPAC—in command of all US forces in Southeast Asia), his captors offered to release him as a “goodwill gesture” / slash propaganda ploy / slash / negotiating chip. McCain bluntly refused, insisting that he would not go home before any of his fellow prisoners who had been captured earlier than he had.
Think about that for a moment. That is a kind of integrity that is almost unimaginable in our soft-bellied, self-serving culture. It’s true that that was the high standard demanded by the US military’s Code of Conduct, and McCain would likely have been pilloried within the Navy if he had accepted clemency. But that hardly diminishes the enormity of his courageous act. I invite you to look in the mirror and ask if you could have met that standard. I’m afraid to.
John McCain spent five more agonizing years in prison after refusing early repatriation and was regularly tortured for his defiance. He was not released from captivity until 1973, as part of the Paris Peace Accords, along with the rest of the hundreds of US POWs that Hanoi was still holding. His injuries remain debilitating to this day. (Even before being shot down he had already suffered shrapnel wounds—and demonstrated remarkable bravery—during a hellish fire on the USS Forrestal.) He went on to serve another eight years in the Navy—including an influential tour as the naval attaché to the Senate—before retiring in order to run for Congress.
From the time he first won a House seat in 1983 McCain was a press darling, thanks in large part to his reputation for integrity and candor—qualities in short supply in the District of Columbia—along with a penchant for salty language and self-deprecating humor. He seemed to genuinely like journalists and enjoy talking to them, which was reciprocated. Consistent with his history, he was also a constant thorn in the side of the Republican leadership during two terms in the House and the five that followed in the Senate, where he was unafraid to defy party leaders and stand up for what he thought was right, even after he became a senior party leader himself. (The North Vietnamese could have told the GOP leadership that.) It was all of a piece with the bravery and selflessness at the heart of the McCain legend.
Not surprisingly, he was a foreign policy hawk from the get-go. Tellingly, however, he has always been adamant in his opposition to torture on both moral and practical grounds; it’s only the chickenhawks like Cheney and Trump who are eager to waterboard people. He even became an unlikely villain to some in the POW/MIA community for co-chairing (with John Kerry) a congressional inquiry that dashed the families’ desperate hopes that their loved ones might still be alive in Southeast Asia. Campaign finance reform also became a McCain obsession, one that gravely threatened the grimy pols that form the bulk of America’s political class and earned him more enemies. Ultimately that crusade would prove a bitter defeat in the age of Citizens United, a sure sign that McCain was not going to succeed in singlehandedly changing the political culture.
From the earliest days of his political career McCain looked like appealing presidential timber to a great many Republicans, independents, and even some Democrats. To many of us in the military he was the ideal candidate: a man who defied the hateful Washington stereotype, who was one of us, and who bore the most unimpeachable credential of public service possible, short of a Medal of Honor.
But McCain’s record was not spotless by any means. He cheated on his first wife Carol, who had loyally endured his captivity in Vietnam, and who during his imprisonment suffered her own grievous, permanent injuries in a car accident, necessitating innumerable surgeries and hospitalizations. (Ross Perot paid for her medical care.) McCain subsequently left her for a younger woman who happened to be a beautiful, politically well connected heiress to an Arizona brewing fortune. Yet even Carol remained warm toward him and an endorser of his political career, which only further burnished his image. Later, as a senator, McCain was glancingly implicated in the savings & loan scandal of the 1980s, though cleared of any serious wrongdoing. But Johnny Mac had never portrayed himself as a saint, as he would be the first to admit. He is a flawed human being, but one who has always taken full responsibility for his actions in all these situations. In the cesspool that is Washington DC, John McCain—warts and all—still stood as an exemplar of the best of America, and of our political leaders in particular.
THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (PHASE 1)
McCain made his first run for the presidency in 2000. He named his bus the Straight Talk Express, and its popularity with the reporters was legendary. Jealous rivals painted the degree of devotion among members of the usually jaded press corps as cultlike. But that admiration spoke to just how otherwise distasteful national politics were (to say nothing of the people who practiced them), and what a special individual John McCain was in such an environment.
McCain’s chief rival for the GOP nomination was George W. Bush, whose career in military aviation was, uh, considerably less impressive. But Bush’s forbearers—a Senator and a President—outranked even John’s, and his campaign was certainly not averse to the use of bare knuckles. Team Bush showed its viciousness in the South Carolina primary, where it ratfucked McCain with a classic dirty trick that smacked of Nixon operatives like Donald Segretti: it spread a scurrilous rumor that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child who was —gasp!—black. (I did say this was South Carolina, didn’t I?) The rumor likely had it origins in McCain’s daughter Bridget, whom he and his second wife had adopted from Bangladesh.
That the Bush campaign would do this at all speaks to its moral bankruptcy. That it would do it to a fellow Republican was even more shocking. But it worked. McCain lost the primary and eventually dropped out of the race, paving the way for Bush’s nomination in the contested 2000 election. Per Michael Lewis and “The Undoing Project” it’s pointless to engage in butterfly effect speculation about what might have been, but I’ll do it anyway. Had a President McCain been inaugurated in January 2001, we would likely have never heard of hanging chads, the Axis of Evil, or Abu Ghraib. Even allowing for his consistent hawkishness, it’s impossible to imagine McCain being buffaloed and manipulated by the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al the way the pliable and complaint Dubya was.
It always stunned me that McCain forgave Bush for South Carolina enough to support him in the years that followed. Perhaps that went hand in hand with his ability to put country above self (which presumes that he considered Bush and his agenda good for America, or at least better than his fellow Vietnam veterans Gore and Kerry). But in retrospect, it may also have demonstrated a disturbing loyalty to party above country.
Another rumor that dogged McCain throughout the 2000 primaries (and after) was much more baroque: the notion that he was an actual Manchurian candidate. The most benign version of this whisper campaign was that he was too damaged by his years in captivity to serve as president. The most extreme was that while a POW McCain had been actively brainwashed to be a sleeper agent who later could be “activated” to destroy the US presidency from within. But in all forms it was absurd and insulting and despicable …..especially coming from members of a party that huffed and puffed about their patriotism, making an absolute fetish of military service in particular. But the idea of a “Manchurian” presidential candidate controlled by one of America’s enemies would prove bitterly ironic some sixteen years hence.
THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (PHASE 2)
By 2008 McCain had worked his way to the top of the GOP batting order. It was “his turn” to be the party’s nominee, according to the hidebound order of succession that both major parties (mostly) live by. Even under ordinary circumstances McCain’s task would have been difficult, given the natural pendulum swing after eight years of a Republican White House. But public unhappiness with the war in Iraq made the task even harder, not to mention the bad luck of facing a transformational, once-in-a-generation political figure in the person of Barack Obama. And that was before the global economy imploded on the eve of the election.
Thus we come to a pivotal moment in the tragedy of John McCain.
Looking for a proverbial gamechanger and knowing he had little to lose, McCain cast caution to the winds and chose as his running mate little-known Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
The moment still sticks in my mind for its weirdness. McCain was obviously trying for a surprising, even radical choice that would shake up the race, seize the high ground on diversity—not the GOP’s strong suit—and woo independents and others who would not ordinarily vote Republican. At the same time he was undeniably bowing to the rightward shift his party had made over the preceding thirty years. On paper, it was a bold idea, one that tried to court diametrically opposing factions with a single stroke. But by most accounts, McCain picked Palin impulsively and without consulting his top advisors, or—crucially—conducting the usual vetting process. Hence the revelation, within days after the announcement that she was his pick, that Palin had a daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock…..not necessarily a disqualifier, but definitely the sort of thing that a campaign would typically have uncovered and chewed on before putting someone on the ticket. (McCain and his team claimed that they had done so, but the way it was sprung on the American public made it feel like they had not, which was just as bad.) Ironically, in the end that detail would not even make the list of top ten things that ought to have disqualified Palin to be vice president.
The choice of Sarah Palin was an unmitigated disaster on almost every count. It soon became apparent that she was a blithering idiot unable to string together a coherent sentence, an ungrateful opportunist, a loose cannon, and a purveyor of despicable right wing nonsense. Rather than securing two very different demographics, McCain was perceived as pandering twice over, both to the right wing of the GOP that had always distrusted and disliked him (an effort that made him look bad to independents and other free-thinkers) and to women in what seemed like the ultimate case of transparent tokenism. More importantly, McCain’s own judgment was called into question for having chosen someone so shockingly unfit, and for having made that choice in way that seemed reckless. For the first time, the “maverick” label that he had worn proudly and justifiably throughout his career looked hollow, especially as it was shamelessly co-opted by Palin. So did the GOP’s slogan of “Country First,” as voters contemplated Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Yet a certain segment of the American public took an instant, passionate, and almost creepy liking to Palin seemingly because of those very traits—a harbinger of even worse things to come in presidential politics.
Of course, McCain himself soon encountered great difficulties with his rogue running mate. (Julianne Moore won the Emmy for playing Sarah Palin, but everyone knows it was Tina Fey’s lacerating impression and fortuitous physical resemblance that helped destroy Sarah Barracuda….or more accurately, simply abetted the process as Palin destroyed herself.) Yet thanks to McCain thrusting her onto the national stage, she was now poised to be a permanent fixture of American life for years to come.
I cursed John McCain for having plucked this wackjob from local politics on the edge of the Arctic Circle and inflicted her on the American public at large. Seeing that she was only 44 at the time, just a little younger than me, I remember thinking, “Good God, we’re going to have to deal with this monster for the rest of my natural life.” I did not anticipate that Palin would prove such a dilettante that she would drop out of politics altogether within the year, and content herself with being a star in the ghetto of right wing media and home shopping channels in order to make as much money as she possibly could. (Which certainly proved she was a Republican.) I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched that happen. I had no idea that a much more chilling and dangerous ogre would emerge that would make me long for the days when Sarah Palin was the worst reactionary demagogue we had to contend with.
But while the Palin debacle looms largest, during the 2008 campaign McCain also generated one memorable, deeply poignant moment when he politely but definitively slapped down a supporter who made the mistake of saying—to his face—that Barack Obama is “an Arab” (an even more ignorant variation of the insidious right wing fever dream that Obama was Muslim, or born in Kenya). “No, ma’am. No ma’am,” McCain interrupted her firmly, shaking his head in frustration. “No ma’am, no ma’am”—he said it four times—“he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
McCain took some heat for not going further—as if an Arab could not be a decent family man—but that criticism missed the point. Even allowing for semantics, it’s clear that his intent was wholly admirable in unambiguously rejecting the right wing’s whole racist, sectarian line about Obama full stop. More to the point, thinking of that exchange now, in light of what American presidential politics has become, McCain’s integrity and honesty—his sportsmanship, at the risk of being flip about it—is almost heartbreaking. Can anyone imagine the current leader of the Republican Party—the alleged erstwhile leader of the Free World—bypassing a layup to school a supporter and stand up for the truth like that? On the contrary: Trump famously began his whole presidential career by shamelessly propagating the vile lie of birtherism, which even now he refuses to fully recant.
Looking back, it’s shocking to remember how kinder and gentler presidential politics were just nine short years ago. Not that they were particularly kind and gentle, but compared to what has transpired since, it was a day at the roller rink.
After his loss to Obama, McCain returned to the Senate where he remained one of its most powerful and popular members. But it was a new world. With the rise of the Tea Party (which adored Palin, of course) and the concomitant sharp turn of the GOP into hysterical anti-Obama obstructionism, even John McCain was forced to make concessions to the party’s far right wing.
Strike that. He was not forced to do so. He chose to do so. He could have said, “This brave new political world is not for me and I’m not going to bend to it.” In other words, he could have retired from elective office.
It’s fair to assume then that McCain wanted to continue to be a US Senator and serve his country as such, and do good as he saw it, which required practical adjustments in order to stay in office…..compromises, one might say. It was a utilitarian calculation of what he was willing to do to avoid being primaried or otherwise overtaken on his right flank. It was also a dynamic that we had seen before, in his willingness to support Bush despite the ghost of South Carolina, and that we would see again in years to come.
Here is it instructive to remember that John McCain is the senior senator for Arizona, land of Goldwater (whose seat in the Senate he took over), a state that is eccentrically right wing even by the standards of Western US libertarianism, with its open carry laws, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, stubborn resistance to a Martin Luther King holiday, and even to daylight savings time. I lived there for a year and found it a fascinating place, although it took some time to get used to seeing little old ladies wearing holsters in the supermarket.
But if the rise of the Tea Party forced McCain to tilt right, an even bigger challenge awaited. The steep downward trajectory of the Republican Party is neatly embodied in the descent from its presidential nominee in 2008 to its presidential nominee in 2016.
Two years ago this month at a GOP primary forum in Iowa, Donald Trump, speaking off the cuff (does he speak any other way?), said scornfully of John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” (Fittingly, the video link here is from Russia Today.) At the time, just a month after entering the race, Trump was still considered a joke by most observers and far from the front runner. After that jawdropping remark, I was among the many who assumed it was all over for Trump. Done. Game over. Hasta la vista baby. I thought, “Well, it was fun while it lasted but now the clown car portion of the primaries is finished.” Like many many people, I did not yet realize—and wouldn’t for months to come—that such behavior was precisely what Trump’s supporters liked.
It’s too hard to count the ways in which that comment by Trump was vomit-inducing, but I’ll offer a few. Trump—much more a child of privilege than even an admiral’s son—avoided service in Vietnam by virtue of four student deferments, and when those ran out, a permanent medical wavier for alleged bone spurs in his foot. (Even though he was perfectly able to play prep school football, and later could not even remember which foot he had this debilitating injury.) On the radio with Howard Stern in 1997, bragging about his cocksmanship in the Eighties, he jokingly called his avoidance of venereal disease his “personal Vietnam” and said “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” As recently as 2015 he told a biographer—with a straight face this time—that he “always felt that I was in the military” because of the high-priced military boarding school to which his parents shipped him in the eighth grade after years of disciplinary problems at his previous prep school. He went on to opine that it gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” Both comments ought to endear him to men and women who actually risked their lives in Southeast Asia, or the families who lost loved ones there. More to the point, such comments reflect his repulsive tone deafness and general contempt for the profession of arms and the sacrifices made by those in it.
The McCain comment (in the same forum Trump also called him a “loser”) would be only the first of many instances of Trump insulting the military as he rose to claim the GOP nomination and then the presidency, to include (just a sampling): attacking the Gold Star Khan family, demeaning veterans with PTSD, treating a Purple Heart like a party favor, claiming that he knows more about ISIS than our generals, describing the US military as a disaster…..I could go on. And these are merely the personal insults to the US military. His moronic and self-incriminating pronouncements on defense policy—advocating war crimes, torture, carpetbombing, impossibly simplistic and unworkable ideas about strategy and conquest, and the like—are a completely separate category of horrors. That Trump still has (or ever had) significant support among military people and veterans will always mystify me. But such is the nature of the con artist.
It should surprise no one that Trump’s ignorance of all things military has born bitter fruit since he became president. Almost without exception on national security and foreign affairs he is pursuing policies—to the extent that this dog’s breakfast can credibly even be called “policy”—that are disastrous for America, from personally handing top secret codeword intel to the Russians, to recklessly offending our staunchest allies and rattling seventy years of NATO solidarity, to serving as the best recruiting sergeant global jihadism could ask for, and in his spare time selling wolf tickets about armadas without knowing where they really are. (It is a bitter irony that McCain’s hardnosed foreign policy philosophy is actually far more in tune with Hillary’s.) In his six short months in office (or 8000 years, as WaPo satirist Alexandra Petri describes it), Trump has done enough damage to the United States to make Leonid Brezhnev, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden green with envy, if they were not already decomposing. And that is without even taking into account the possibility that Trump and/or his surrogates actively colluded with the despotic rulers of a foreign power—Russia, no less—to install him as president of the United States. Which I hasten to repeat, would be the greatest scandal in American history, approaching outright treason at the very highest level.
Which at long last bring us to the question at the heart of this long-winded essay:
Why is John McCain not opposing Trump more vigorously? Tonight’s news may have given us the answer. But it’s worth examining the circumstances before we knew that.
John McCain is not going to run for president again. He is probably not going to run for another term in the Senate when he is up for re-election in 2022 (when he will be 86). He is at the end of his long political career and beholden to no one. He has nothing to lose by standing up to Trump but everything to lose in terms of his legacy by not doing so. By contrast, he could go down in history as an epic American hero—dwarfing even his courage in Vietnam—if he leads the charge against the human colostomy bag currently occupying the Oval Office.
So why has he not been doing that?
We are all painfully aware that, short of a dramatic reversal in the composition of Congress in the 2018 midterms, the only people in America would really have the power to stop Donald Trump for the foreseeable future are the Republican leadership. (I am not even entertaining the possibility that Trump’s base, that twentysomething percent of the electorate of which the GOP mandarins are so fucking terrified, will turn on him.) And John McCain is the number one Republican Senator whose reputation for integrity, courage, and free thinking would give us hope that he would lead the charge.
Yet so far he has not.
Per above, Trump is a suicide vest strapped to the torso of American foreign policy, Senator McCain’s most treasured area of interest. One would think McCain would be vocally furious. He surely knows what an absolute abomination Trump is and the existential danger he poses to American credibility and influence worldwide, if not to American democracy full stop. Even beyond questions of national security, Trump’s person, values, and general behavior presumably turn Johnny Mac’s stomach, antithetical as they are to everything he was raised to believe in. To say nothing of Trump’s personal attacks on him.
Why then does he not do more to oppose and unseat this monster? Having foisted Palin on us—in retrospect, the proto-Trump, a stalking horse for the nightmare candidate to come—McCain ought to feel a special responsibility for stopping this exponential acceleration of that Know Nothing phenomenon.
He has huffed some, though less than he did during the campaign. Along with Lindsey Graham, he has been the GOP’s most staunch critic of Trump on matters of foreign policy. But even his statements have fallen short of real condemnation, let alone a definitive break with the White House that might inspire similar bravery in other Republican leaders. The bitterest irony of all is that with his silence McCain is lending credence to Trump’s shameful dig that he is no hero. Does he want to go down in history as having condoned and therefore tacitly abetted the most manifestly unfit and destructive president the United States has ever seen?
Maybe he is doing things behind the scenes that are more useful than making a public stand just yet. Maybe he is keeping his powder dry for the critical moment when it is needed the most. Maybe he is waiting for Mueller to build a case and then lend his influence to pressuring the GOP when it can do the most good. We shall see.
Maybe McCain is just old. His incoherent questioning of Jim Comey during the newly-fired FBI director’s Senate testimony last month certainly lent credence to that theory. (Characteristically, McCain owned up to his fumbling with self-deprecating humor after the fact. But it was still sad to watch.) In the 2008 presidential campaign McCain’s age—72 at the time—was an enormous point of contention. Yet Trump was 70 when he ran in 2016 and there was nary a peep about health issues, unless they were Hillary’s (a complete fabrication of right wing trolls) or Trump’s crazy doctor attesting that he could beat Superman in arm wrestling.
Or—and this is a depressing thought—maybe John McCain is simply not all that upset about Donald Trump. That is a hard proposition to imagine, given how horrific Trump is on national security, and on Russia in particular. But it’s worth remembering that McCain is a Republican after all, despite the tendency of independents and even some on the left to idealize him. He voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He did not oppose any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees (voting yes on all and abstaining on Scott Pruitt for the EPA). He voted to confirm all but two of Trump’s sub-Cabinet nominees (the exceptions being Mick Mulvaney for director of the OMB and Robert Lighthizer to be US trade representative.) He has indicated that he would vote for some version of Trumpcare.
McCain may yet prove heroic in opposing Trump. He has faced down far badder hombres than this fat-assed, soft-bellied, loudmouthed bully. But it is fair to say that his legacy may ultimately determined by what he does right now, in the twilight of his political career.
I am not putting the responsibility for saving the republic on John McCain’s shoulders. We all have a part to play in that effort. (I do my part mainly by hyperventilating in this blog every week, and by fuming at my television.) And one might well say that John McCain has already done enough for his country and we have no business asking more of him. Fair enough. But Senator McCain is among the very few Americans in the unique position of being able to do something truly impactful…..and among those very few, he is virtually the only one with a record of courage that suggests he might do so.
So for now we are left to ponder the ponder why arguably the bravest man in postwar American politics is largely absent at this crucial juncture. Here we wade into the murky waters of philosophy of mind and whether there is a continuous Self. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t.) We have to ask whether the John McCain before us now is literally a different person than the John McCain of 1968. And yes, I am using the word literally literally.
Now comes the news that he has a cancerous brain tumor which surgeons have just removed. That may explain much of what we have discussed here, including what looked like senior moments, and his heretofore puzzling moderation in opposing this pathetic excuse for a commander-in-chief. It may also mean that McCain will be physically incapable of participating—or worse, departed from this mortal coil—as the denouement of the Trump saga plays out. More’s the pity. Then again, at the risk of being morbid, perhaps this looming specter will prompt Senator McCain to rise up and point his finger and all the moral weight behind it at Donald Trump and bellow on behalf of all of America: “No more.”
We like our heroes to be of a piece. Conveniently monolithic. But McCain is and always has been a complicated, flawed figure capable of astonishing courage and integrity, but also of moments of weakness and error. Most of us are only capable of the latter. Heroes are distinguished by their timing: by their ability to rise to the occasion when the occasion demands it. No one needs heroes when things are going swimmingly. John S. McCain III rose to the occasion in spades in the Hanoi Hilton. Now, if his health permits, is the time for him to be a hero once again. If so, he will end his career with a glorious and inspiring coda that will resonate for generations. If not, his story will indeed be an American tragedy. And if it is his health (rather than his will) that prevents it, America will be robbed of a potential champion at the cruelest possible time.
Senator, I wish you a speedy recovery, for your own sake and—selfishly—for our own. We really need you right now.
Next week in The King’s Necktie: “Strangelove in Reverse: The Dangers of Mattis and McMaster as the Last Line of Defense.”
4 thoughts on “John McCain: A Tragedy in Three Acts”
Great summary of a complex figure’s public life, Bob. Thank you. It seems that McCain is struggling between two core sets of values he espouses, usually compatible but in sharp conflict during this presidency: Self-reliance, hard work, responsibility, and freedom from government oppression on one hand (which he perceives as under threat from a liberal agenda that, in his mind, leans towards socialism and even communism — something he has sacrificed a great deal fighting), and honor, integrity, selflessness, and competence (which he surely recognizes are absent from the Trump administration). He has probably decided that the long-term and fundamental objective of pursuing the former justifies tolerating a merely temporary (in his mind) absence of the latter. It’s a risky calculus, though, since mendaciousness, corruption, and the erosion of moral norms from the highest levels can become institutionalized and self-perpetuating faster than imagined if not checked aggressively. Once they are and the dangers of that path are finally recognized as greater than that of socialism, it can be too late for even leaders of McCain’s stature to reverse the course…
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Well said, Walter. In that sense, McCain’s bargain is a version of the Faustian bargain that the entire GOP has made, except for the part of the equation where they value honor, integrity, selflessness, and competence. It’s how large those qualities loom in McCain’s personal history that make his calculation–if in fact that’s what it was–so particularly disturbing. (No one is disappointed to see Mitch McConnell behaving that way.) To me, the right wing’s utilitarian argument that Trump and all his attendant horrors are justifiable because of some greater goal of X is unpersuasive on three fronts: either because this thing X is often a sham, like healthcare; or because it is pointedly not aided by a Trump presidency, like national security; or lastly and above all (as you point out), because the sheer awfulness of what they are willing to tolerate–such as shameless disregard for the rule of law–is a price too high for our republic to pay.
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