The What?, the Huh?, and the Why? of the McCain Deification

by Neil H. Buchanan

The last week has seen a truly unprecedented public reaction to the passing of an American politician.  Across a series of memorial services and events celebrating the life of the late Senator John McCain, as well as in the pages of the newspapers and on the screens of the television networks, there was almost complete agreement that McCain was a singular patriot, a once-in-our-lifetimes hero whose passing marked the end of an era.

(I will not provide links here, simply because there are so many examples.  For those who might be reading this column at some point in the future, simply search for McCain's name in late August or early September of 2018.  You will have hundreds of links from which to choose.)

This is in many ways understandable, of course.  The time after even a controversial public figure's death will inevitably bring forth tributes from both sides, with criticism at least muted and an emphasis on the humanness of the moment.  And McCain was not a notably controversial figure.  Even so, the response to McCain's death went far beyond those norms, for reasons that are worth exploring.

It is common to appropriate the reputations of respected figures from the past, to try to recruit them to one's cause: If Orwell were alive today, he would see through this nonsense in a second, or I think Dr. King would actually be opposed to ____ today, not for it.  And of course the standby: What would Jesus do?  McCain was rather quickly pulled into that group, but there is a certain logic to it.

The gap between the McCain who was all but deified for the past week and the McCain who actually existed is wide.  Understanding how that happened -- and its extreme degree -- is a lesson in modern American politics.  The bottom line, I think, is that McCain was being used -- but in a way that he most likely would have approved of (and even exulted in) -- by people who needed to turn him into more than he actually was.

Without doubt, McCain's life provided plenty of raw material for lionization.  Even during the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, the least positive thing that one could have said about his military service in Vietnam -- and especially his actions as a prisoner of war -- is that those heroic years, as truly admirable as they were, were neither necessary nor sufficient resume items for a president.

Although that is true, it simply was not relevant during his mourning period.  He was a war hero, and he endured what no one would ever want to endure in order to fulfill his belief in what patriotism and decency demanded.  The war in which he fought was a tragic political error, but McCain played his part in it because he believed in oaths, honor, and standing with others whose bravery he respected and whose sacrifice he shared and understood.

In that regard, there is no surprise that McCain was eulogized as a hero and a patriot.  That he followed his military service with a long career in public office turned him from a military hero into a person whose passing was certainly going to make news.  What is surprising, as I noted above, is that his death was used as a reason to turn him into something that he was not -- again, possibly for good reason.

Was McCain's career in politics a great one?  He had a few memorable moments, all of which have been recounted endlessly over the past week.  Certainly, he is justly cheered for refusing to allow a voter at one of his 2008 campaign events to assert that Barack Obama is "an Arab."  Although one might hope that McCain would have said, "There is no reason to denigrate Arab-Americans, who are every bit as patriotic as you and me; but for the record, Obama's not an Arab," that is a 20/20-hindsight-type of criticism.  In the moment, McCain knew that the woman was using "Arab" to mean "not American" and "dangerous," so his response -- "He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues" -- was impressive, especially because he reacted without hesitation.

The most recent moment of political courage, of course, was McCain's thumbs-down vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act last summer.  At the time, I wrote a column in which I speculated that there had actually been more than enough potential "no" votes in the Senate to sink the bill but that McCain's Senate allies allowed him to take the spotlight with his dramatic thumbs-down vote.  I have no reason to think that my speculation is unfounded, but even if I am right, there is undeniably a certain heroism in not only doing the right thing on the merits but also in sparing a few of his party colleagues from the political fallout of voting against ACA repeal.

My more cynical suspicion is that the other two Republicans who voted against repeal, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, had thought that they were going to get credit from the press for voting "nay" but believed that they would not be blamed by other Republicans for actually stopping the repeal.  If I am right about that, McCain's surprise vote must have been a stunner for them.  Moreover, it would mean that only McCain deserves credit among Republicans for his decision, because only he knew that he was casting a deciding vote.

Having said all of that, I cannot get past the idea that these moments (along with the few other examples that have recently been discussed) do not add up to what the public outpouring for McCain is making of them.  Most of the other examples of political courage were simply words and not actions, such as saying bad things about Donald Trump when Trump deserved to be rebuked (Trump's attack on the Gold Star family that spoke at the Democratic National Convention, for example).  By comparison to his Republican colleagues, McCain was sometimes refreshingly forthright, but that is an exceedingly low bar.

And what about the 2016 election itself?  McCain waffled on whether to fall in line behind Trump, even though he claimed to believe that Trump would be a bad president.  And when he finally decided not to support Trump, McCain simply could not bring himself to endorse Hillary Clinton.  This had the effect of telling people that they could get away with a half-loaf approach, where sitting at home (because "I just feel uncomfortable about Hillary's emails," or whatever) deprived Clinton of the votes that she needed to win.

Think of how much of a difference it would have made if John McCain had walked onstage at a rally in late October or early November of 2016 and said, "We've had our differences, but there is no serious choice other than this intelligent, dedicated American in this election."  McCain is not the only one who missed that moment -- the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and John Kasich come readily to mind as well -- but this is exactly what political heroism would look like.

That, indeed, is what the John McCain who was described in eulogies this past week would have done.

Certainly, that is what a true maverick would have done.  As we have seen since almost the very beginning of the 21st century, however, McCain's once-somewhat-deserved reputation as an independent thinker -- a reputation, it must be said, that even at its most plausible moment was largely crafted by McCain's ability to cajole and flatter political reporters -- was either an illusion or not important enough to McCain to continue to earn.

Faced with attacks from the right in his reelection campaigns in 2010 and 2016, McCain aggressively moved right.  And having once said that he would listen to the top military commanders when considering the repeal of don't-ask-don't-tell, McCain decided when it mattered that he did not like their answer and opposed repeal in the most aggressive and disingenuous terms.

Moreover, how should we process McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008?  McCain apparently wrote in a recent book that he regretted the decision, which is something.  Even so, he knew at the time that she was not qualified to step in should he be elected and then die in office, yet he capitulated to the proto-Tea Party crowd and tried to prove that he was a reliable right-winger.  Regretting a bad decision is better than doubling down, but if we are going to cheer him for a quick moment in a campaign town hall, we must also be clear that he had faced a much bigger test of leadership and political courage in that campaign but failed disastrously.

And a reliable right-winger is in fact what McCain was.  In one of the few not-all-positive commentaries on McCain in mainstream outlets, Paul Krugman's column today begins: "Let’s be honest: Despite his reputation as a maverick, John McCain spent most of his last decade being a very orthodox Republican, toeing the party line no matter how irresponsible it became. Think of the way he abandoned his onetime advocacy of action to limit climate change."  (Krugman then goes on to laud McCain for his 2017 vote that saved the ACA.)

How reliable was McCain as an arch-conservative vote?  We need consider only one of his final decisions as an active Senator.  After the ACA debacle, McCain garnered some very positive press attention for calling for a return to "regular order."  He was, we were breathlessly told, a man who loved the institution of the Senate, and he was rightly horrified by the slipshod methods of his party's majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the entire Republican leadership.

Having given yet another spotlight-grabbing speech calling for a re-commitment to high principle, however, McCain then fell right back into line when it came time to pass the hugely regressive tax cut bill last fall.  That bill's path to passage was about as irregular as one could imagine -- no hearings, no mark-ups, nothing but pure power politics -- giving McCain every excuse to say, "I support a responsible tax cut, but I am not willing to trample the important traditions and norms of this august body to pass something that none of us have been given an opportunity to understand."  Instead, he quietly voted yes.

And speaking of the Senate's traditions and norms, where was McCain on the issue of the courts?  He voted to end the filibuster for Supreme Court justices and then voted for the most conservative jurist the country had seen since Clarence Thomas (whom McCain had also voted to confirm).  True, one could say, "But McCain was just doing what the Democrats had done when they eliminated the filibuster for other presidential appointees," but that would simply mean that McCain did not actually believe in Senate norms as much as he believed in power politics.

Similarly, McCain's voice was nowhere to be heard when McConnell and their colleagues conspired to prevent Merrick Garland from even receiving a hearing.  If McCain were truly the brave statesman whom people have been describing for the past week, he would have said, "I suspect that I'll end up voting against Judge Garland, but we cannot know until we honor our duties and give him the same fair hearing that all presidential appointees should receive."  Yet McCain did not utter a peep there, just as he had said nothing during the Obama years to stop holding open the dozens of federal judgeships that McConnell and Trump are now packing with far-right political operatives.

To repeat, most of my complaint here about McCain's sins of commission and (especially) omission is not based on the idea that he is uniquely culpable.  There are 50 other Republican senators, some of whom also try to cultivate their image as reasonable people, but none of them actually did anything to stop any of these outrages, and many of them eagerly participated in them.  McCain was, in that regard, simply another get-along Republican in an era of increasingly unembarrassed Republican extremism.

The title of this column refers to three questions regarding McCain's deification: What, Huh, and Why.  The "What" is short for "What just happened?" and the answer is that McCain has been eulogized as a uniquely heroic statesman, a brave bulwark against the depredations of Trumpism, whose passing represents the end of an era.

The "Huh" is short for, "Huh?  Are we talking about the same John McCain?"  He did, as I wrote above, not lack for moments that could be lauded, but he was mostly just another far-right Republican.  Yes, he would on occasion write angry tweets about some of Trump's worst moments, but that does not distinguish him from, say, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who also fails to back up words with actions.  Political talk can be important on its own, but we should not pretend that it is more than it is.

Which brings me to the question of "Why," that is, "Given that McCain was admirable but not the person who was being remembered for the past week, what was everyone thinking?"  Different groups had different reasons, but the bottom line is that everyone found it convenient to use an exaggerated version of McCain to make their own political points.  This is not rare, of course, but the degree to which it happened here is remarkable.

Take the NeverTrump conservatives, almost all of whom made their bones as Cold War-style military hawks.  They hated the Iran nuclear deal, which was another moment where McCain should have shown real leadership but instead said, "Obama did not get a perfect deal, so I'm going to attack him and his weak deal."  McCain was their kind of guy.  That they also hate everything about Trump makes McCain's public rebukes of Trump fit all the more ideally into their current effort to say, "See, we're real conservatives, and you Trumpists are the frauds."

That is easy enough to understand.  But why would Democrats and independent analysts (especially in the press) go so far overboard?  In part, it is easy to do so in the immediate aftermath of someone's death.  Add in the idea that non-Republicans would also like to be fondly remembered after they are gone, and I completely understand why they would exaggerate the case for McCain.  And as I noted above, McCain was very good at flattering reporters, who in turn gave him flattering coverage in life that all but inevitably intensified after his death.

Surely, however, the main reason that so many people have decided to elevate McCain (above even where he would otherwise have been elevated) is Trump.  Even though McCain actually did very little to stop Trump -- far less than he actually was capable of -- he at least said things that angered Trump and that sounded like good civics lessons.

There is an odd, reverse analogy here to the controversy that brought down Roseanne Barr earlier this year.  When I first read the offensive tweet that resulted in her being fired, I thought, "Well, that's obviously racist, but it's probably coded enough that she'll get away with it after a couple of days of controversy."

I was delighted that things took a different path, of course, but I was also genuinely surprised.  What was it that had caused this not-really-worse-than-many-things-out-there moment to become something much bigger?  The answer, I think, is that she presented people with an opportunity to stand against true indecency.  When people did a bit of checking, they found out that there was plenty of evidence that what she was saying was not out of character.  An outpouring followed.

The analogy is imperfect, to say the least, and as I noted, it works in reverse with McCain.  His history provides key moments that one can use to make the case that he was uniquely brave, and he was thus a useful avatar as an anti-Trump voice of decency and reason.  If I had considered the question before his death of what the public/political reaction would be, I would have probably said, "He'll be rightly lauded for his heroism, and people will talk about how horrible Trump was to him, but his political legacy is mixed at best, so the assessments will also be mixed-to-positive."

Clearly, that is not what has happened.  And in the end, maybe that is the best outcome that we could have hoped for.  McCain's lesser moments are there for the history books to note, and his positive moments are also there for us to appreciate.  But if he becomes in death the ultimate retort to Trumpism -- "Oh yeah?  Well, that's not what McCain would have done!" (even if it is in fact something that McCain did, or at least did not act against) -- then even in death he will continue to serve the country that he so clearly loved.