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The hagiography of John Sidney McCain

Informed Dissent

Jeffrey C. Billman Aug 29, 2018 1:00 AM

There's been plenty of hagiography offered in the press since the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain on Saturday – much of it deserved, some of it a reflection of the fact that McCain's true constituency was the Meet the Press circuit.

McCain was, of course, a war hero, a man who endured things during his nearly six years in the Hanoi Hilton the rest of us can't begin to fathom, and who rejected an offer to return home early because it violated an innate sense of honor and fairness. He was also a man who, at key times in his public life, positioned himself squarely against his party's orthodoxy, championing campaign-finance and immigration reform, outspokenly apologizing for and repudiating his own defense of the Confederate flag in the South Carolina primary in 2000, shouting down the nascent birthers during his 2008 presidential bid and, soon after his diagnosis last summer, dramatically crushing the Trump administration's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McCain rather intentionally made "no bullshit" his brand – the Straight Talk Express, he called it – and offered himself as a bridge to a bygone era of bipartisan comity. Beltway reporters, eager for the access McCain always gave, lapped it up.

At the same time, McCain hardly ever met a foreign policy problem he didn't think could be solved by more bombs. He was among the most hawkish hawks of his generation, a crew of neocons that blundered us into Iraq and have had American troops in Afghanistan since today's college freshmen were in diapers. (In his deathbed memoir, McCain admitted the Iraq War was a mistake, which, well, good for him; less good for the million or so people who have died in the conflict and its aftermath.) And, as much as he plainly despised Donald Trump – not inviting Trump to the funeral, while asking Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to eulogize him, was an admittedly great troll – McCain paved the way for the demise of his version of conservatism and the rise of the hard-right know-nothings with his elevation of Sarah Palin into the national spotlight. No Palin = no Tea Party = no Trump.

Nor should we forget that McCain's campaign-finance crusade, the thing that launched him onto the national scene in 1999 and 2000, was born of his own scandal a decade earlier, one that almost ended his career in disgrace. He was one of five senators accused of improperly intervening on behalf of major financier Charles Keating after Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan collapsed in 1989; a Senate report declared that McCain exercised poor judgment. McCain, chastised, turned this experience into a bipartisan effort with U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold to get as much money out of politics as possible. It failed – in no small part because of Citizens United, decided by the Supreme Court justices McCain supported.

All of which is to say that assessing a political legacy as long and complex as John McCain's is nearly impossible to fit into one neat box (or column). He often spoke truth to power; he also often failed to back his words up with action. McCain was an imperfect exemplar of the statesman being mourned this week.

But the thing about McCain – the thing I begrudgingly admired, despite the nauseatingly fawning media attention he received, which too often overlooked grievous policy errors – is that he always embraced his imperfections, dusted them off and put them right up on the mantel. He always sought to comport himself with honor. He tried to be a good and decent man in a political system filled with sharks and vipers.

And that's really what separates him from what his Republican Party has devolved into under Donald Trump, whose brittle ego couldn't allow him to issue a statement praising McCain's wartime heroics or even lower the White House flags to half-staff for more than a day, and who spent the weekend of McCain's death boasting on Twitter of his own (vastly inflated, of course) approval ratings and whining about Robert Mueller and Hillary's emails. It was a pathetic display, like a preschooler sneaking his way to the grown-ups' table and trying to redirect the conversation back toward himself.

Honor, though, is something we've known Trump has long lacked. It was Trump, after all, who so famously pushed the racist birther lie that John McCain tried to brush aside in 2008. It was Trump who insulted McCain's time as a prisoner of war, Trump who developed a very severe case of the bone spurs when his draft card was pulled, Trump who insulted the family of a Muslim soldier killed in action. And it was Trump who, a few days before McCain died, saw his former campaign manager convicted and his former personal attorney/fixer plead guilty to eight felonies apiece, praising the former for keeping his mouth shut and calling the latter a rat like he's a fucking mafia don rather than the president of the United States.

Last week was as clear an indication as we've seen that the noose is tightening around Trump and his inner circle. His former longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, has openly alleged that the president directed him to commit a felony in order to hide an alleged affair ahead of a presidential election; that, by itself, is an impeachable offense. Adding fuel to that fire, the head of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, was granted immunity as part of a federal investigation into allegedly illegal payments to keep Trump's scandals hidden.

At the very least, all of this should prompt a round of congressional investigations. If Bill Clinton having an affair and lying about it was enough for impeachment two decades ago, surely having multiple affairs and illegally conspiring to use campaign funds to hush things up is worthy of a hearing or two.

But don't hold your breath. This is Donald Trump's party now, and Trump has managed to convince the withering shell of the GOP that the investigations into him are witch hunts. The Republicans in his grip lack the intestinal fortitude to do what so obviously needs doing.

I like to think, but I don't know, that John McCain, at full strength, would have forcefully called Trump to account even if it led him to suffer the same fate as fellow Arizona senator Jeff Flake. I also like to think, but I doubt, that a week of mourning for both the man and the politics we like to imagine that he represented would prompt Republicans to reconsider their own commitment to honor and decency, and to the man in the Oval Office who personifies the polar opposites of those qualities.