I never voted for John McCain – I guess I had three chances if you count primaries, although I would not have voted in the primaries he ran in – but like a lot of folks who tend to vote Democratic, I long admired the man. For me it went back to reading Michael Lewis’ Trail Fever, his accounting of the 1996 presidential campaign. McCain did not run that year, but he was a finalist to be Bob Dole’s running mate, and thus bounced in and out of Lewis’ narrative. The basis of the McCain myth was lain in that book…
John McCain’s professinal life – or at least the last 35 or so years – were all about living as a symbol for both something he may not actually have been and a time that may have never existed.
He was a self-proclaimed “Maverick,” someone willing to speak against the leadership and prevailing winds of his party when his beliefs told him to. There was truth to that: he was rarely a favorite of the party elites because he would occasionally call them out. But he was also a man who, like most other senators, voted with his party an overwhelming majority of the time.
And despite claiming to be from outside the political class, he turned himself into the ultimate insider, appearing like clockwork on the Sunday talk shows.
As for the imagined time he called back to, while it is true that Democrats and Republicans were once more capable of finding common ground and working together, it’s not like the 1980s were a time when legislative matters were light-hearted affairs and politicians always said nice things about their opposition.
Still, even if you acknowledge that public image didn’t necessarily match reality – when does it ever? – it is difficult to not think that John McCain’s death signalled an end to a larger political era.
McCain may not have been all that he and his supporters touted him to be. But he was still a man who would at least entertain the idea that his political opponents might have some ideas worth consideration, that they had the political right to advance them, and that it was possible set politics aside and find common ground as people.
I can’t help but look at his treatment of Presidents Clinton and Obama and our current president when measuring how McCain’s words and actions lined up.
Despite his own experience in Vietnam and that of Clinton’s during the same age, McCain told Clinton he would proudly visit the Vietnam War memorial with him after he took office. There is no doubt that there was much about Clinton’s history, politics, and style that McCain loathed. But he knew it was better for the country to find a way to move past the divisions of the Vietnam era and the symbolism of he and Clinton visiting the war memorial together might move that process along.
Time and again during the 2008 campaign he defended Obama as a man of character and a patriotic American worthy of the same opportunities given McCain. Late in that campaign, when the angry, racist side of the right began to speak louder and louder – harbingers of the 2010 and 2016 elections – McCain was visibly uncomfortable as he understood they believed him to be the representative of their views. Through the Obama presidency McCain spoke forcefully and often about what he saw as the failings of the president. But he never made those attacks personal and the two men seemed to share a warm and respectful relationship until McCain’s death.
In his final two years he expressed continuous dismay and disgust with the current occupant of the White House. News that had leaked last spring was reiterated this weekend: McCain hoped that Presidents George W. Bush and Obama would deliver eulogies upon his death while the current president would not be welcome at his funeral.
Perhaps that was petty and stems from horrific comments the current president made in 2015 about McCain. And perhaps it undermines the points I made above, how McCain was always willing to look beyond politics. But it also demonstrates that McCain was also willing to judge those he found to be lacking in character. He had no time for phonies and frauds, even if they held the same political beliefs that he did. He was far more comfortable with people he disagreed with on the issues, but could find common ground with as humans.
Where the line between myth and reality can be found is always difficult. Maybe McCain’s embrace of his opponents was all for show and he secretly ranted against those he praised in public. Maybe some of his “maverick” statements over the years were done purely for effect and did not reflect his actual views.
However we can only go with what we saw over his career. In an age when both parties seem more interested in destroying each other than actually advancing policies that will make this country a better place for all, it’s comforting to think that perhaps McCain represented an age when both sides gave a little and found ways to work together, and even if they fought bitterly while the Senate was in session, found ways to look beyond politics and see each other as humans outside its walls.
Cody Keenan, a former Obama staffer, Tweeted out the story of his first meeting with McCain when he was interning for Ted Kennedy. They met on a Senate elevator. When McCain learned that Keenan worked for Kennedy, he responded, “He’s a good man, without him we’d be lost.” A Republican colleague also on the elevator scoffed and departed on the next floor. McCain raised his voice and said, “Don’t mind him, he’s an asshole.”
Again, it’s impossible to know where the line between myth and reality is in that story. But that memory also sums up what most of us, of all political stripes, wanted to believe about McCain.
Our country is worse off because there are fewer politicians like John McCain left.