The facts of John McCain’s life are not hidden. From his return from Vietnam to his death last Saturday, John McCain was a public man. Nor are those facts inconsistent. McCain’s life had a trajectory, as all ours do, but there are no sudden turns, no Great Awakenings. The man who died was the man who had lived. We knew him. He was familiar.
Yet the moment of his death has, at least for the moment, defined his life. Had he died two years ago, before the current President was chosen by the Electoral College, or had he died three years hence, after the current President was run out of the country by an angry mob, his life would have been evaluated much differently. John McCain’s life would have been evaluated for what it was, not what people wanted it to be.
The instant deification of John McCain was not without warning, but the winds were strong nonetheless. He was a Great Man, we were told, repeatedly, insistently, not because of anything he did, but because of things he had said. His words, not his actions, were the touchstone. Any failings, failings of action or failings to act, were summarily dismissed, because he had used his words to apologize for them. To raise those actions, to insist that any evaluation of his life include them, as we include them for other lives, was to denigrate the Great Man, to desecrate his corpse.
John McCain was the hero people needed.
Which people? Not the members of his party, and certainly not their leader. McCain was not respected among Republican voters, certainly not since 2008, when he elevated their real hero to national prominence, then did everything he could to undermine her. And he was never respected by those who never respected him in the first place, those who disagreed with his views and saw little merit, or even substance, in his actions.
McCain was respected by journalists, national journalists, political journalists, because he talked to them, openly, warmly, candidly, and with great acerbic humor. Journalists love that, a source who pals around with you, confides in you. Smart politicians know that too, and they’ll cultivate the relationships that journalists crave. Journalists love being played. They must love it, or they wouldn’t get played over and over. Journalists loved John McCain.
Pundits loved him too, columnists who write for respectable publications, writers whose words drive the National Conversation, who by their sinecures become elites, who are rewarded by not being too much of one thing or another, and who reward those who do not rock the boat, their boat, the boat that provides those sinecures in the first place. When you’ve done well by the system, you’re unlikely to question the system itself, and when you’ve done well by your words, you’re inclined to give greater weight to the words of others. Pundits loved John McCain.
But of course political journalists and pundits, the public elites of Our Exceptional Republic, are going to love John McCain, love him for his words, as they always have. A major politician dies, they’re going to have nice words for him. That’s what they do. That’s what they’ve always done.
But McCain didn’t die two years ago, or three years hence. He didn’t die when public life was business as usual, more or less. He died now, in this moment, a moment when the fate of the Republic is far from certain, when despotism is evident, when Civil War is not unimaginable. John McCain died in a moment when America needs a Hero.
And dammit, we’ll take what we can get.
There are two moments that have settled into the public imagination about John McCain, and neither of those involve him riffing on the Beach Boys to bomb Iran. The first moment is sincere, if deeply problematic. The second moment is a sham.
The John McCain people want to celebrate is exemplified by a town hall he held during his presidential campaign in 2008. You know that moment. A crazy lady, a woman who probably has a dozen MAGA hats in her closet today, is concerned that McCain’s opponent, a black man, a man certainly born on shores more distant than Hawaii, is secretly a Muslim, or, because she is a simple woman, an “Arab”.
“No, ma’am,” McCain says. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not.”
The moment was, and remains, memorable, because McCain’s response was sincere and heartfelt, especially in the face of a crowd that evidently believed otherwise. It is a moment when words are actions, words spoken calmly and with assurance, words that exemplify an America we want to believe in: We’re all in this together.
What makes this moment problematic is that while McCain’s heart was in the right place, his words were a tad off: Arabs are American, too, and among those who aren’t, the ratio of decent family men to scoundrels falls within acceptable norms. But we’ll allow the moment, provided that it is never cited without that asterisk. McCain was trying to say the right thing.
Bearing in mind that by this point, in October, McCain had chosen as his backup quarterback a woman with no interest in saying the right thing, a woman whom the crazy lady probably loved — and who was chosen with that in mind — and whose candidacy unleashed the furies that bedevil our Republic today. Memory places that moment sometime in the summer, but in fact John McCain had already taken the cringingly desperate action of choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate.
He later expressed remorse for that. After he lost.
The second moment is fresher, just a year ago, a moment we witnessed in real time, as well as the reaction: John McCain “saved” Obamacare.
The moment sticks because of the high — deliberate — drama, the huddle on the Senate floor, “Wait for the show!”, thumbs down, the last-minute save. What could be more heroic than that?
Well, not voting twice that week to move repeal to the final vote would be more heroic.
It would also be more heroic if, months after killing Obamacare repeal because the process was rushed — “regular order!” — you didn’t vote for an equally rushed, and equally catastrophic, tax cut. Especially a tax cut that included a provision undermining Obamacare, if not killing it outright.
Never mind that your wife is heiress to a $300 million fortune. That’s principled!
Beyond those two moments, John McCain lives in the public imagination because he did not like Donald Trump, and would say as much when the mood suited him. And — full disclosure — we don’t like Donald Trump either! We also think he’s a tinpot tyrant who poses a grave threat to the Republic! If only there was something, anything, we could do about that!
If only we were — a Senator!
But we’re not, and John McCain is, or was, and in a Senate with a Republican majority so slim that a vote or two could brake the rolling tyranny, a Senate where a leader of McCain’s stature could bring a vote or two along with his, McCain did not act. Repeatedly. And why bother? His words were sufficient to stoke his reputation, his reputation among those whose trade is words, the political journalists and pundits who also are not Senators. And who can blame him? It worked! Sainthood beckons.
But chatterers gonna chatter, and that’s not what intrigues us about the Mourning Festival currently in progress. The points we have made, we have made to acquaintances, acquaintances we’ve known since high school, Good Liberals all, and they have pushed back. Hard.
Not that they dispute the facts of John McCain’s life, the actions he didn’t take contrasted with the words he spoke. They’re smarter than that. Instead, the facts are dismissed, as if we’re pooping in their punchbowl. They need John McCain to be the hero who stands up to Donald Trump, the hero who told off that racist lady, the hero who saved Obamacare on principle, and they need it bad.
And they’re not alone. John McCain died with much higher favorability among Democrats than Republicans. Not just nationally, but in Arizona.
Perhaps, with time, an honest evaluation of John McCain’s life will emerge, an evaluation that credits him on his merits and faults him his failures. Perhaps one day we will see the man who lived as we all live, with setbacks and successes, compromises and clarity. John McCain as a politician of his time, who did better for himself than most, who was capable of the grand statement and prone to the craven action.
That day is not today. Today, some Americans need John McCain to be much more than that, and the rest of us are just gonna have to live with it.