Why Did We Care About John McCain?

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As John McCain moved toward the end of his terminal illness, I thought about how I would write about him when he died. I have been a great admirer of McCain’s but also a frequent and sometimes vociferous critic. When someone dies we should focus on the best things we can say about them. But we should, especially after a respectful interval, account for the fullness not only of their lives but the fullness of what we said about them while they lived. This isn’t simply a matter of not glorifying someone in death beyond what they merited in life. It’s also a matter of holding ourselves accountable.

The commentaries on his life have either praised McCain’s unique virtues or pointed out all the ways he never lived up to his billing. For me, the most interesting question to ask is what made McCain such a towering figure in our public life in the first place. Here I mean the term not in an evaluative but in a strictly descriptive sense. He was a towering figure, whether we think he should have been or not. McCain did not have a particularly lengthy or distinguished legislative record. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law is a critical part of his public reputation. But it’s one law and it’s largely been washed away by Citizens United. Senators are not only legislators. They also have a specific constitutional responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs. The scion of a distinguished military family, that was clearly his real passion. But the invasion of Iraq, the defense and national security decision he is probably most closely tied to — both before and after 9/11 — is now widely seen as a mistake of catastrophic and historic proportions, a fact even he conceded by the end of his life.

It is often said that a President’s first decision is the choice of a Vice President. In this sense, though McCain never became President, this sole presidential decision turned out to be amazingly and consequentially bad. In bringing Sarah Palin to the center of American public life, McCain played a major part in shaping the resentment-fueled culture-war Tea Party extremism of the early Obama years and the politics we now recognize as Trumpism.

Yet, look at the flood of tributes and retrospectives along with the backdraft of critiques in the wake of his death. I can think of no other political figure (and few public figures), other than Ted Kennedy, who was not a President and got anywhere near this sort of response to his passing. It’s not even close. Kennedy served in the Senate for nearly 50 years and was responsible for numerous pieces of high profile legislation. Critically, he was the last surviving Kennedy brother, so his passing brought a close to an era with all that historical mystique and baggage.

To make sense of this question we have to go back to the 1990s when McCain first became the McCain we’ve known for the last quarter century. For most of his first decade in Congress McCain was a garden variety Republican. Elected to the House in 1982, he served two terms before making the jump to the Senate to replace Barry Goldwater in 1986. He was a hard-edged conservative with an irascible reputation. McCain had no history or family ties to Arizona. He spent the years after his release from captivity in Washington. He divorced his first wife in 1980, married Cindy McCain, an Arizona heiress, a few months later and settled in Arizona. Two years later he won a seat in the House. He was a man on the make.

His first decade was unremarkable and indeed worse than unremarkable since he managed to become the sole Republican to win a named part in the Keating Five scandal, a seminal scandal of the era which presaged the sub-prime financial collapse two decades later. But in the 1990s, and especially with the election of Bill Clinton, McCain became a central player in what is probably best seen as a public conversation men of the baby boom generation were having with themselves about ego, sacrifice and the Vietnam War.

A key pivot point came with Bill Clinton’s push to normalize relations with Vietnam, something that as a Democrat who had conspicuously and cagily evaded the draft made him uniquely vulnerable politically. In a much-discussed exchange, McCain promised Clinton that if he normalized relations he would back him publicly, leveraging his credibility as a veteran and a POW. Clinton did and McCain did. And from this point forward McCain became a symbol of reconciliation, not only about the Vietnam War but also the psychodramas and life experiences of the baby-boomer men who lived through that era.

This was particularly so for men who had not themselves served in Vietnam but found his service and his indisputable sacrifice as a POW something both alien and deeply inspiring. McCain espoused what could seem like an almost archaic form of patriotism but leveraged toward more reconciliation than political division — something that made him seem distinct and attractive compared to the already dominant Gingrich GOP. McCain, of course, was a Vietnam veteran. But it’s important to remember he was a good decade older than the great majority of men who served or didn’t serve in the war. When he returned to the U.S. in 1973 he was a few months shy of his 37th birthday.

Michael Lewis, who was not nearly as prominent a writer as he would become over subsequent decades, likely played a bigger role in birthing this myth of John McCain than any other writer, and perhaps any other person than McCain himself. In the mid-90s he wrote a series of profiles of McCain in a number of different publications. Here is a key one from The New Republic about McCain’s reconciliation with a Vietnam War protester named David Ifshin. Ifshin would later be stricken by a terminal illness. The article revolves around their friendship. Another example is this one from a couple of years later in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s yet another from this genre by James Carroll in The New Yorker.

I should note here that when I use the word “myth” I do not mean it as a fairy tale or cover story. To say something is a myth is not to say it is either true or false. Myths are stories we tell to make sense of and give meaning to the unorganized facts of existence, which themselves are mute and have nothing to tell us. As humans, we can only really understand things through stories. Read those profiles and you’ll see that there was a lot of reality to the story they tell.

The key point in my mind is that the origin of the McCain myth, his towering figure-ness, is this very particular fact: through his story and his actions he had a profound appeal to a generation of men who had guilty or angry or unresolved experiences with the Vietnam War and who were, at this point in McCain’s career, themselves moving into mid-life. (Bill Clinton turned 50 in 1996.) Soon after McCain started to show a political heterodoxy he’d seldom shown much evidence of in the past, particularly in his at first quixotic efforts on behalf of campaign finance reform with former Senator Russ Feingold. Again, he identified with conservative values but seemed unchained from the venality of his own party. This set the stage for his 2000 presidential run which is in many ways the centerpiece of his career. It was always a kind of corny enterprise with his “Straight Talk Express.” But the key here is something that is critical to understanding McCain. Reporters simply liked him. He broke from character, didn’t mind upsetting orthodoxies, even possibly relished it. He was accessible and was always good for a snappy quote. He was also clearly a charmer, something you can see from all the tributes from reporters. This was also clearly a pose and a posture he most enjoyed.

This part of the story is so well known there’s not much for me to add to it. The more interesting point is that after that campaign, the sting of the defeat and what he regarded as dirty tricks against him accelerated his move in an increasingly heterodox direction. People rightly remember his staunch support for the Iraq War. They remember less the fact that he was one of the few Republicans who voted against the Bush tax cut, first in 2001 and again in 2003. There were consistent rumors during Bush’s first term that McCain might switch parties and become a Democrat. It’s never been clear to me how much reality there was to those rumors. But I do know at least that he had real conversations with his friends John Kerry and Joe Biden about doing just that. Whether he was seriously considering it or more humoring or yessing good friends I have no way of telling. The possibility seemed more plausible because a handful of his key advisers did move in this direction.

Of course, McCain didn’t become a Democrat. He remained a Republican. And as the prospect of running for President again came into view he methodically began re-conforming to conservative orthodoxies he’d shunned. When the Bush tax cuts came up again for extension in 2006 he voted for them. In the wake of his death, people have revisited key moments in the 2008 campaign in which he conspicuously refused to tolerate the racist proto-birtherism that would be synonymous with the Republican right during Obama’s presidency. But in a broader sense, McCain’s 2008 effort was a mostly cringe-worthy effort in which he methodically undid or repudiated virtually every heterodox stand or penchant for “straight talk” he’d built his post-90s reputation on. His statements were often canned. He retreated to consultant-speak to make sense of his change of heart on climate change, taxes and a bunch of other issues. The moral was simple. For political power, McCain would once again turn himself into the garden variety Republican politician he’d been for his first decade in Washington. The fact that after all that he lost only made it a sadder spectacle. Throughout Obama’s presidency there were hints of the earlier McCain. But he was mainly back to the conventional Republican of 2008 and years before.

We each have a myth we tell about ourselves. Much of the drama of our lives is played out in how we do or don’t live up to that story we tell, both to ourselves and those around us. For a public figure, this is all the same but played out before a far larger audience. McCain spent a decade and a half building his public myth and then half as many years thoroughly dismantling it. Looking back on McCain’s political life it is hard not to conclude that the public fascination with him was essentially a matter of this conversation baby-boom men have been having for decades about their youth, the Vietnam War and the meaning of their lives. The other is essentially one for Democrats and the reporters whose main political identity is hostility to ideology who were beguiled by his supposed “maverick” status and political heterodoxy — either praising him for it or chiding him for not living up to it.

These folks loved the idea of McCain’s heroism, his sacrifice (all real) and his charm but just wished he wouldn’t support policies they hated. In this sense, it’s hardly surprising that so many Republicans hated McCain. He was a Democrat’s idea of what a Republican should be. For Democrats, being a Republican who consistently voted as Republicans do amounted to a betrayal of who they thought he was supposed to be. But that’s who he was, a fairly conservative Republican. All these contradictions are really to me the root of public fascination with the man, the endless drama of the mismatch between his professed ideals and the actual man. He never really lived up to them but he had enough moments to keep up the tension. He had a deep devotion to country and to service to country. He was an arch-hawk; he was a consistent opponent of torture. He was different and his difference made him interesting and worth listening to.

The public fascination with McCain remains largely an enigma to me, though in many ways I share it. The Myth of McCain as a straight-talking maverick politician was consistently belied by his own actions and votes. I remember him now mostly for that dramatic thumbs down, killing Obamacare repeal in the Senate, leaving Mitch McConnell crestfallen and President Trump enraged. Was it over the human toll of the bill? Its slapdash process? Or simply spite? I’m really not sure. Similarly, I always thought simple anger played a key role in his seeming move to the left during Bush’s first term in office. But somehow his own years of suffering and resilience as a young man remained an anchor, setting him apart from almost every contemporary politician as someone who had experienced and survived something so alien and all but unimaginable to almost all of us. The through-line, as best as I can divine it, through the last two decades was a deep, traditionalist devotion to country, a deep patriotism which for all of McCain’s faults never seemed to be a vehicle for demonizing domestic enemies, something that sets him apart from most of today’s Republican party and certainly from the President who now embodies it.

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