The Complicated Legacy of John McCain

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As a naval officer, John McCain survived years of unimaginable physical and psychological abuse. That doesn’t absolve him of poor decisions as a lawmaker and presidential candidate, though. (Photo Credit: Diane Bondareff/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.

Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.

In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.

Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”

As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”

Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.

Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.

Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.

One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.

In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.

And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.

Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.

In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:

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.

This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.


It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:

In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.

His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.

He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.

The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.

It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.

And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.

John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.

It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.

Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.

Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.

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