The John McCain Phenomenon
Midway through the Republican primaries of 2000, the writer David Foster Wallace spent a week traveling with John McCain’s campaign. Wallace’s sprawling narrative, published in Rolling Stone, is many things: a quirky snapshot of the life of political journalists, with their flashbulb scrums, cellphone jabbering, and stale donuts, and a paean to the overworked and undersung laborers who make campaigning possible—the techies, the aides, the strategists, the bus drivers. But above all, Wallace’s story is a meditation on the possibility of political authenticity in an age of jadedness. For all the cynicism of the “post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era,” Wallace saw in the person of the then-three-term Senator from Arizona the allure of something that transcended the muck and disappointment of The Political Process, “something riveting and unSpinnable and true.”
Eighteen years later, post-9/11, post-financial collapse, and post-invasion of Iraq, amid a-still-ongoing-and-apparently-endless global War on Terror, amid portents of mounting climate catastrophe, and amid the daily manic squalor of the Trump administration, Wallace’s posture of cynicism toward The Political Process seems almost quaint. But in direct proportion to these magnified justifications for despair and disgust, the American fascination with John McCain has only intensified. Precisely as American politics now seem grotesque and cruel as never before, the idea of the straight-talking-war-hero-maverick, driven to serve and make sacrifices for a cause beyond self-interest, has only gained in power—whether as an ideal to be praised or a canard to be scorned. Even as McCain spent ever more time in the spotlight, establishing a complicated track record that belied the easy mythologies of his boosters or the caricatures of his detractors, the impulse to see him as some kind of unique paragon, whether of good or bad, grew apace.
And now John McCain is finally dead, and while ubiquitous hagiographies may compete with self-consciously contrarian takedowns, they together seal his monumental status. Their very polarization indexes a profound underlying consensus: that John McCain was exceptional, and that his exceptionalism is a reflection of the idea of American Exceptionalism itself.
Even more than the Senator himself, the story of John McCain has one recurring character: the American military. The McCain family tree traces itself back to a soldier who served on George Washington’s staff, and both McCain’s grandfather and his father were Four-Star Admirals with illustrious careers. The former, John S. McCain, Sr., commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific; he died only four days after the Japanese surrender. The latter, John S. McCain, Jr., served as Commander-in-Chief of all forces in Vietnam from 1968-1972. Bearing the name of both these formidable men, John Sidney McCain III was born on an American base in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936. A Navy brat, McCain grew up traveling from post to post, developing in the process what his biographers all describe as an independent and rebellious streak. That the young McCain would follow his forefathers into the family business was a foregone conclusion—but probably inevitable, too, was the prospect that he’d chafe under the stifling examples they’d set. At the Naval Academy, his hijinks and defiance toward authority combined with his notorious good looks and debonair charm to earn him the nickname of “John Wayne McCain,” a moniker that accompanies his entry in the Academy’s yearbook; when he graduated in 1958, he was fifth from the bottom of his class. This persona accompanied him to flight school and his early career as a hotshot Naval aviator, during which he crashed one plane in Texas and flew another clean through some power lines in Spain (McCain himself would later describe these forays as “daredevil clowning”).
As the story goes, as McCain aged, he matured, and so too did his ambitions, both personal and professional. He traded life as a “carefree, unattached, and less than serious” bachelor to marry Carol Shepp, a woman from Philadelphia, in 1965. He also began to fear that his reputation for recklessness might endanger his chances at being promoted to a command position and thereby “dishonor me and my family.” And so when the chance came to earn a “creditable combat record” in Vietnam, he embraced it.
For those with a taste for such things, the tales of McCain’s martial prowess and adventures are rousing stuff. Piloting an A-4 Skyhawk, he flew a score of bombing missions all over North Vietnam. He narrowly evaded death on numerous occasions, both in the sky, from Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, and on the ground, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, where an electrical mishap led another plane to fire a missile directly into McCain’s jet while he sat parked in its cockpit. McCain leapt through the flames to safety, barely escaping, as fire spread to nearby fuel tanks and munitions; the subsequent inferno killed some 134 sailors. Reflecting on the aftermath of the disaster to a New York Times reporter, McCain was pensive: “It’s a difficult thing to say, but now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” All the same, McCain was back doing bombing runs a few weeks later, this time aboard the carrier USS Oriskany, where he volunteered to fly the most dangerous missions of the VA-163 “Saints” Squadron, an outfit widely known for its daring raids and high rate of pilot casualties. It was with this unit that, on October 26, 1967, one day after receiving a Bronze Star for yet another hair-raising mission, McCain took off for his twenty-third bombing run over Vietnam.
As McCain’s plane zoomed toward a power plant in Hanoi, it was detected by enemy radar. He managed to dive and release his bombs just as his Skyhawk was struck by a surface-to-air missile. McCain ejected, knocking himself out and breaking both arms and a knee in the process. He regained consciousness just as his parachute brought him down to the lake in the middle of Hanoi. McCain was dragged out of the water by a crowd of enraged Vietnamese. The mob beat him, and someone wielding a bayonet stabbed him in the ankle and groin. He would likely have died then and there had Vietnamese soldiers not arrived to take possession of him, depositing him in Hỏa Lò Prison, the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.” Denied medical treatment for days, he again would likely have died had not the Vietnamese learned that his father was an admiral and realized they were sitting on a propaganda goldmine. McCain was wheeled before a French camera crew to demonstrate his supposed fair treatment; he was given time to relay a message of love to Carol. He was then thrown into solitary confinement. Weeks later, when he was finally put in a cell with some American POWs, brutalized and fifty pounds lighter, they were surprised he was not dead.
It bears remembering that McCain cannot easily be extricated from the political conditions that made Trump possible in the first place.
The story of McCain’s subsequent captivity, which spanned five-and-a-half years, is a horrific one. He was repeatedly beaten and tortured, his fractured bones clumsily operated upon without anesthetic and then broken again. His teeth were knocked out and he was left bound for nights at a time in excruciating stress positions; he developed dysentery so bad it nearly killed him. The Vietnamese wanted him to denounce the war, to admit to war crimes. After four days of particularly sadistic abuse in 1968, he finally relented, signing a confession of sorts, an act that still brought him shame decades later: “I failed. . . There’s still somewhere a piece of paper in Hanoi that says I confessed to being a war criminal,” he said in 2008. Yet his captors wanted more. Time and again they sought to induce McCain to accept an offer of freedom, reasoning that the image of an admiral’s son receiving clemency would enhance the prestige of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam and discredit its American opponent as a nation where the children of elites enjoyed special privileges while lower-class soldiers were left to languish. Time and again, McCain refused. The Military Code of Conduct, he insisted, forbade him from cooperating with his captors, and wouldn’t allow him to accept release while POWs who had been captured before him remained prisoners. When blandishments failed, the Vietnamese returned to abuse, to beatings and solitary confinement (where McCain spent over two years). As the war drew to a close, McCain’s captors sought one last coup: to get McCain to fly back stateside on a plane with Henry Kissinger, who had come to Hanoi for talks. Kissinger refused; McCain would travel back with the rest of the POWs, or not at all. His return to U.S. custody in 1973 was a front-page story in the New York Times: cameras captured him as he limped from a U.S. transport plane in the Philippines. That limp never left him, and neither did many of his other injuries; McCain went to his death unable to raise his hands above his head to comb his hair.
If the story of McCain’s ordeals in Vietnam is one of hellish suffering and long isolation, the story of his time back stateside was one of different challenges and considerable public exposure. After agonizing physical therapy, he finally became able to fly again, and, after attending the National War College, was made commander of a Florida-based Naval Aviation training squadron. By now he was a nationally recognized figure, with ambitions to match. He wrote of his experience in Vietnam for US News and World Report, defended Richard Nixon’s handling of the war, and became a close friend and advocate for Ronald Reagan. Fellow prisoners say McCain had spoken of the idea of becoming President as early as 1970, and friends in Florida had encouraged him to run for Congress in 1976, but instead he took a position in the Senate Liaison Office in the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs. There he rapidly established a reputation as a savvy operator, in one signal episode executing an end-run around both Pentagon policy and the explicit wishes of the Carter administration to secure Senate funding for a massive supercarrier project—an act that, if discovered at the time, would probably have gotten him fired.
Yet as McCain’s professional star rose, things on the home front were falling apart. While John had been in captivity, Carol had been left disabled by a near-fatal car crash, and their individual sufferings intensified the difficulty of their separation. When they were finally reunited, McCain was dogged by rumors of womanizing, conduct he would later candidly acknowledge. While on a Senate junket in Hawaii, he met Cindy Hensley, a businesswoman from Phoenix who was also heiress to a beer distribution fortune and seventeen years his junior. John and Carol divorced in 1980, and he married Cindy later that year. None of John and Carol’s three children (two by a previous marriage of Carol’s) attended the wedding. Cindy and John would go on to have three children of their own and adopt a fourth.
But if these family upheavals cost McCain, they also gave him something else: ties to a state where he had a viable chance of running for office. He retired from the Navy in 1981, and promptly moved to Phoenix. His rise there was meteoric. Less than two years after arriving in Arizona, he was a member of Congress, winning more than 60 percent of the vote; four years after that, he was a senator, replacing Barry Goldwater.
As a politician, the designation far and away most frequently associated with John McCain—and cherished by his supporters—is “maverick.” For a senator from a Western state, the name is apt, at least in connotation. The term “maverick,” after all, hails originally from Old West cattle herding, and is used to refer to calves that bear no clear brand indicating who owns them. As a shorthand for McCain’s supposedly self-directed, iconoclastic political proclivities, however, “maverick” is something of a stretch. An un-jaundiced view of McCain’s record of votes and advocacy reveals something else: the McCain brand of brandlessness was, at the end of the day, really just a slick repackaging of a very familiar product.
To be sure, there were issues on which McCain staked out territory that put him, at least rhetorically, at odds with his party, and for which he paid a certain price. His support for the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, a bill he put forward in 2005 in partnership with Democrat Ted Kennedy, is the classic (and singular) example. The bill’s plan to establish a guest worker program and path to citizenship led many Republicans to denounce McCain for supporting “amnesty”—an accusation frequently hurled at him by rivals for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But this legislation, like its two successor bills, ultimately came to nothing, and sits uneasily alongside McCain’s other stances on the broader issue of immigration. Yes, McCain coauthored that bill, and, yes, towards the end of his life, he condemned Donald Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But McCain also supported Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 “Papers Please” legislation, which gave Arizona police broad latitude to detain anyone they suspected of dubious immigration status (read: looking Latino). And his sudden expression of support for that bill—mere hours before it came to a vote—appears to have had a lot to do with the prospect of being primaried by a fiercely anti-immigration Tea Party Congressman, J.D. Hayworth.
To hear his boosters tell it, the watchword of the McCain brand was his constancy, his dogged commitment to principles regardless of the political pressures of the moment. But in truth, with immigration as with practically everything else, McCain’s positions, which started on the right, did move, shifting ever further right, following his party. Indeed, the only real sense in which he could be viewed as a “moderate” or to have remained constant was thanks to a kind of parallax effect, whereby his party moved faster and harder to the right than he did. Early on, he disdained tax cuts and emphasized deficit reduction; later, he called for tax cuts and dismissed deficit worries. As late as 1999 he pined for a world where Roe v. Wade would be made “irrelevant”; later, he called for its repeal, supported the idea of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and entertained talk about prosecuting doctors who performed abortions. On some matters, like his vote against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, or his remarks on states’ rights and government displays of the Confederate flag, McCain would later be unequivocal that his position had since changed, and his candor in those disclosures would indeed surpass that of politicians more squeamish about the optics of “flip-flopping.” But for the most part, when it came to the constantly rightward drift of both his expressed principles and Senate voting record, he and his advocates were silent; McCain, the line went, was above such recalibrations, his true beliefs always remaining unchanged.
Above all, the classic McCain move was to loudly denounce some new development as a betrayal of our lofty national ideals or a sign of how far our country had fallen—and then to quietly support it. In 2007, he vowed to close Guantanamo, and to transfer its detainees to detention stateside and expedite “judicial proceedings”; six months later, he voted against restoring their rights to habeas corpus. In the last months of his public life, McCain’s jeremiads against President Donald Trump received both attention and praise, as with his condemnation of Trump’s proposal to rescind DACA; less noted was the fact that McCain had voted against the Dream Act in 2010, approved practically every single one of Trump’s cabinet appointees, and cast votes in support of administration initiatives 83 percent of the time. One by one, McCain’s supposedly brave proclamations were undone mere days or even hours later by McCain himself. Press and pundits would reliably show up and laud his moralizing, which made for good copy; his subsequent party-line conformism would disappear into the archives of the Senate roll call.
But there was one issue on which McCain’s personal brand never compromised, and toward which his record of support remained as fixed as though it were a pole-star: war. His opposition to a few token military entanglements (Beirut in 1983, Somalia in 1993) was the exception that underscored the rule: McCain’s enthusiasm for the global American military project was effectively limitless.
Media praise of McCain as a warrior-turned-diplomat of abundant civility and august gravitas sits uneasily alongside his not-infrequent expressions of callousness and ghoulish, even bloodthirsty glee.
From the Nicaraguan Contras to the Free Syrian Army, when McCain saw militants who could advance U.S. interests abroad, he strenuously lobbied to arm them. “I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically, elected governments,” he proclaimed throughout the 2008 primaries. Though he would later attempt to argue those words also indicated persuasion through “values and principles” and not just weapons and violence, this was, at best, a dubious semantic dodge. From the start of McCain’s career to its end, a clear through-line seamlessly stretches from his support for the proxy wars of Cold War Containment, the adventurism of “rogue state rollback,” and more recently, his approval of massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia to combat “Iranian conduct in Yemen.”
Where proxies couldn’t do the job, McCain was not shy about committing American soldiers. A resolute cheerleader for the War on Terror in general and the invasion of Iraq in particular, he centered his 2008 presidential campaign on the success of the so-called surge—an increased deployment of some thirty thousand American troops to occupied Iraq. But as rigorous analysts such as Andrew Bacevich have documented, the surge did not so much produce a new diminution in violence as it coincided with, and prolonged, one that had already begun. Moreover, it was painfully temporary, lasting only long enough for the Bush administration to proclaim victory, General David Petraeus to advance his career, and growing anti-war sentiment to die down—which were, quite plainly in retrospect, the primary objectives of the surge in the first place. But McCain, who had supported the surge from the start, made it the centerpiece of his “No Surrender” primary tour, framing the issue as a matter of support for the troops and faith in the global American military enterprise as such. “We are the makers of history, not its victims,” he proclaimed when he clinched the Republican nomination, and then proceeded to make the surge the centerpiece issue of his campaign against Obama. For voters to whom the question of the value of the surge was less important than the fact of the war in the first place, this tactic was unpersuasive. And so too was McCain’s wildly expansive visions of how long American intervention in Iraq might take: at one point, he even told the New Yorker that, if circumstances were right, he’d support American troops in Iraq for another hundred years. Nor was McCain’s sense of America’s sphere of military interest fixated on the Middle East. His bellicose remarks raised red flags in Moscow and Beijing, and only months before his death, and one month after “taking exception” with Trump’s inflammatory language about North Korea, McCain warned that America should “make sure that Kim Jong Un knows that if he acts in an aggressive fashion, the price will be extinction.” Media praise of McCain as a warrior-turned-diplomat of abundant civility and august gravitas sits uneasily alongside his not-infrequent expressions of callousness and ghoulish, even bloodthirsty glee. McCain, after all, was the former bomber pilot who thought it droll to sing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of a Beach Boys classic, and who sneeringly called anti-war protesters “low-life scum” while threatening them with arrest.
It is tempting in this moment to contrast John McCain to our present, less august leaders, to mourn him as the last of his kind, the final remnant of a more dignified way of doing politics that has now decisively passed on. Among other things, this attitude not only muddies his actual track record, it also sidesteps the fact that John McCain did not fade away, leaving politics to evolve and decay in his withdrawal: McCain exercised his power to the very end, from the public announcement of his brain cancer in July of 2017 to his death on August 25. But more important, casting McCain as a symbol of a bygone age obscures how much responsibility McCain bears for the state of affairs he leaves behind. At virtually every interval, he cosigned the reflexive recourse to the projection of global force that has led America to have active-duty troops stationed in some 170 countries worldwide. And even as he and his apologists seek to distance him from the president whose agenda he overwhelmingly voted to enact, it bears remembering that McCain cannot easily be extricated from the political conditions that made Trump possible in the first place. When his campaign against Obama grew particularly grim in 2008, McCain was not above making ugly insinuations about Obama’s identity and motives, asking “Who is the real Barack Obama?” and “What does he plan for America?” When people finally began answering McCain’s question (“He’s an Arab!” one elderly woman in Minnesota told him, on camera) he tried to reel things in, but it was too little, too awkward, and too late. But this flirtation with the energies that also sustained birtherism was not McCain’s only contribution to our present moment. Indeed, it may well prove that McCain’s most transformative impact on American politics was the precedent he set by nominating then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his running mate. For the sake of reviving flagging polls, the seventy-two-year-old McCain, already a cancer survivor, mortgaged his campaign’s central themes of experience and prudence to nominate as his potential Oval Office replacement a telegenic but absurdly unvetted and ludicrously underqualified demagogue. The tolerance for cocksure incompetence mixed with pandering to white racial grievances that McCain’s endorsement uniquely legitimized continues to blight American politics, even if Palin herself has receded to the status of a terminally marginal political figure. If there is a direct line to be drawn from the éminence grise GOP of yore to the toupeed orange ghoul that is Trump, that line passes right through John McCain.
But if John McCain was actually in many respects an unexceptional politician, unexceptional even in his hypocrisies and his cynicism, the John McCain Phenomenon is another matter. For the last decades of his life, both for countless Americans and certainly for the media, John McCain was an icon of respectable, patriotic American politics. His appeal was not just confined to Republicans; it captured many Democrats as well, and not just the “hawkish” career Democratic politicians like Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whom he briefly courted as a vice-presidential nominee. McCain also won the votes of 16 percent of Democrats who favored Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries but who preferred to give McCain their ballot over Obama (approximately the same percentage of Sanders backers who switched to Trump instead of Clinton in 2016). The John McCain Phenomenon entranced earnest observers, enthusiastic television talking heads, and serious newspaper editorial boards, all of whom axiomatically invoked McCain as by turns an ambassador for a dignified American conservatism and as a bipartisan moral authority on all matters of military policy and civic honor.
There are many reasons for the John McCain Phenomenon. Part of it was simply canny image management on McCain’s part. His political opponents often discovered that his war record inoculated McCain from many standard lines of attack—the risk of blowback was just too great. The media, whose attention McCain adored (he jokingly dubbed them his “base”), often also didn’t know how to approach his story, simultaneously fascinated and diffident, torn between competing impulses toward lurid sensationalism and pieties of respect.
McCain made the most of all of it. Sometimes, at choice moments, he’d dig at his opponents with pointedly self-deprecating humor. During one of the 2007 Republican primary events, he dropped a one-liner about Hillary Clinton’s support for a one million dollar concert museum for Woodstock, New York: “My friends, I wasn’t there, I’m certain it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time . . . .” Other times, he’d lay it out matter-of-factly, as during his first years in Arizona, when the question of his being a “carpet-bagger” arose and he’d calmly reply that, growing up in the Navy, the longest he’d ever actually lived in any single place was in Hanoi. One way or another, McCain’s story had the power to silence opposition—at home or abroad, as when he gave his imprimatur to Bill Clinton’s normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1995 (years later, McCain would also enthusiastically support lifting of one final American embargo, so that the Vietnamese could buy American weapons to arm themselves against China).
The central key to the Phenomenon is how John McCain’s story activates some of the most deep-seated beliefs and potent feelings of contemporary, post-draft America.
What scandals McCain faced tarnished his image somewhat, but they never truly deflated the John McCain Phenomenon. In 1989, a Phoenix banker named Charles Keating was revealed to have sold garbage bonds to twenty-three thousand of his Savings & Loan customers, destroying many life savings and inflicting $3.4 billion in damage to taxpayers. Keating’s scam had thrived in no small part thanks to a network of five senators with whom he had ties, and some of whom had approached the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to quash an investigation into his practices. Keating had given McCain’s campaign $112,000, and he had numerous other connections to McCain, including gifts of flights on his jet, trips to the Caribbean, and a key role in a lucrative real estate deal involving Cindy McCain and her father. Ultimately, the Senate Ethics Committee concluded McCain had not broken any laws, and merely criticized him for “poor judgment.” The Keating fallout cost McCain professionally (it nixed any putative possibility of a presidential run in the nineties) and personally (Cindy cited the stress of the scandal as a contributor to her developing a drug addiction, which itself yielded another scandal). Yet time passed, and McCain made reparative gestures, most notably another bipartisan bill, this time on campaign finance. When that legislation, McCain-Feingold, was made largely moot by the Supreme Court in Citizens United, McCain characteristically criticized the ruling; just as characteristically, he also voted against legislation that would have reined in its scope. Meanwhile, through it all, the McCain Phenomenon kept on.
There are many explanations for the national political media’s romance with McCain—its lust for heroic military narratives (and war-mongering), its infatuation with the “maverick” label, its sad susceptibility to the flattery of the powerful. But probably the central key to the Phenomenon is how John McCain’s story activates some of the most deep-seated beliefs and potent feelings of contemporary, post-draft America. Since the United States ended conscription in favor an all-volunteer military in 1973, the representation of military veterans among our political elites has steadily decreased. As the political scientists Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy have documented, in 1975, 70 percent of Congresspeople had served in the military; by 2013, that number had dropped to a mere 20 percent. Compared to members of Congress, the representation of veterans among presidential candidates has been fairly high, but it too has diminished in recent decades. Of the twenty-six major party candidates for president since the Second World War, nineteen served in the active-duty military or military reserves, and nine of those were directly involved in combat. But lately this background has grown rare, and its political dividends more debatable. Bill Clinton’s draft avoidance followed him from the campaign trail to the White House, and the last Democratic veteran candidate, John Kerry, was the object of vicious attacks by GOP-affiliated groups that sought to discredit his combat service in Vietnam. Among Republicans, George W. Bush suffered from a checkered stint in the Texas Air National Guard; the last GOP candidate with a military background prior to him was Bob Dole, who served in World War II.
Against this backdrop, John McCain has always represented something else: a politician with a military background like no other, and with a personal story of martial service and battlefield hardship unburdened by tawdry controversy. Amid a roster of bloodless technocrats, a politician who has literally fought and bled for the flag carries the bracing cachet of having faced The Real. And not of having just faced it, but of courageously overcoming it and returning with an inspirational message. As McCain puts it in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, co-written with his eloquent speechwriter, Mark Salter:
I thought glory was the object of war, and all glory was self-glory. No more. For I have learned the truth: there are greater pursuits than self-seeking. Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor. . . . Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return.
This narrative of abandoning self-seeking in favor of something greater taps deep wells, mythic and even theological, while also trading in popular narrative tropes of personal redemption. McCain the young man, conceited but daring and with a roguish charm, is made to suffer, but learns thereby the values of self-sacrifice and leadership. His youthful disrespect for the proper authorities is transmuted into defiance of abuse at the hands of improper authorities, and then into a nobility of proper authority in his own right—while preserving the added frisson of his old independent-minded iconoclasm. The reckless Hotshot becomes the Maverick, who happens to always vote the same way as the Company Man; Han Solo, but for Empire.
And behind this narrative, so appealing to so many Americans, lies yet another one, about the supposed power of suffering and sacrifice to endow the sufferer with wisdom and to produce moral transformation. Not for nothing has the writer Peter Lucier, an Afghanistan veteran, argued that Americans seem to want their veterans to be quasi-Christ figures, at once Messiah, High Priest, and Sacrificial Lamb, the delegated executors and interpreters of a civic religion which their sacrifice dignifies and consecrates. From the stories of his time in the Hanoi Hilton, which in the telling of admirers can take on the feel of a Passion Play, to the outsized hopes laid on McCain as a could-have-been-transformational president, the McCain Phenomenon plays all these keys, and more.
One wonders how much McCain, a man deeply fixated on maintaining a particular public image, knew this, how much he consciously traded on it. In yet another book co-authored with Salter, this time a Profiles in Courage-style set of biographical portraits of McCain’s supposed heroes entitled Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions, McCain presented his take on the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
It is hard for the soldier to risk his life for an irony or for the public to support him in that endeavor without the inspiration that we are doing a necessary good for the world because we are, as a nation, concerned with doing good … America was conceived as an example to the world, and while our pride in that purpose may indeed be sinful, it has made this world a better more just place. That is not to argue that we should march into the world to do good unchastened by the knowledge that we are, in the end, finite and weak and sinful creatures. Nor is to suggest that even in a just cause our choices are unstained by some evil. We can only hope to serve justice better than we have served our self-interest – no easy task.”
This passage hits all the notes of purposefulness, redemption, pious exceptionalism, and reflective morality McCain made his trademark. As a military man who had risked his life himself, McCain here seems to trade—as he so often did—on his unique prerogative to weigh the difference between being prideful and being earnest, between self-interest and self-sacrifice, between pleading in self-justification and being justified by righteous deeds. And then, in literally the next paragraph, McCain goes on to suggest that Niebuhr—who condemned the war in Vietnam as a disgraceful monstrosity—would have cosigned McCain’s votes in support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Never mind that this speculative claim seems dubious at best, cynically self-exculpatory at worst. It was also vintage McCain, catnip for his readers, and for pundits in particular. David Brooks of the New York Times, in one of his many paeans to McCain, praised him for constantly sharing such “little biographies of his own exemplars.” “These sorts of testimonies,” wrote Brooks, “help weave a shared moral order, which is necessary to unite, guide and motivate a diverse country.” Per Brooks, McCain, in addition to having his own inspiring story, represented a font of moral vignettes, the better to inspire the masses. In other words, he was the moralizing pundit’s ideal politician: the politician-as-moralizing-pundit. But something more drew people like Brooks to McCain than a laughable impulse to identify with him. (“McCain’s career has had its low moments, as all of ours do,” observed Brooks.) What McCain truly embodied for the pundit class was one of the few principles they themselves have to live by: that if you can deliver a compelling story, and strike the right postures of seriousness and sense of tradition, it doesn’t matter what monstrosities you help make possible. Constantly toggling between identifying with McCain as their fantasy image of themselves and self-deprecatingly worshipping him as the True Hero they could never be, most American pundits were thus able to avoid assessing McCain for what he actually was and for what he actually did—all the better to avoid confronting those same truths about themselves. McCain, for his part, nobly ratified their self-flattery by letting them flatter him, which he enjoyed. Together he and they operated in a perfect circuit of mutual self-satisfaction; the loss of this is what many in the press now mourn, since with him dies a particularly useful device—an exemplar—for lying to themselves.
But also they mourn because America’s media elites, like many Americans, want something much more basic. They want leaders who make them feel morally uplifted while still getting the same old bloody job done: leaders who voice plangent concerns about napalm, and then fly off on a bombing run; who think somberly of Niebuhr, and then vote for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF); who fulminate about the decadence and irresponsibility represented by our current president, and then approve his tax cuts and record-setting military budget regardless.
Back in 2000, David Foster Wallace saw in the crowds applauding McCain people “cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him.” The question of McCain’s authenticity became, for Wallace, a litmus test for our personal dispositions, a referendum on our “own little interior battles between cynicism and idealism and marketing and leadership.” Now, two decades of war later, after McCain died too late, and Wallace, too early, abstractly meditating on the enigma of McCain’s authenticity feels largely beside the point. Whatever was in his heart, McCain’s political life played out at the nexus of elemental American beliefs—that suffering yields wisdom, that sacrifice is morally redemptive, and that suffering in war is the most noble and purifying experience of them all.
McCain came quite literally to embody those beliefs, and as he did, they merged, combining too with an American tendency to confuse victimhood in one domain with moral authority in another. John McCain, the POW hero turned political icon, reached the apogee of his influence in a nation grown inured to constant war, which it wages while remaining profoundly alienated from it, a war that he himself helped prosecute. Against that backdrop, he ultimately stood for one principle above all others: that publicly celebrated suffering undertaken by the willing and able consecrates with moral authority their decisions to impose suffering on people with less or no say, willingness, or glory in the matter. His very selflessness in his personal ordeal of wartime suffering gave his later decisions to let other people suffer the same veneer of irreproachable selflessness—and made our responses a matter of honoring his sacrifices, not theirs. If John McCain, who had sacrificed so much and so nobly, could bring himself to vote against minimum wage increases, or to decide that American eighteen-year-olds should be deployed to Iraq for the next hundred years, who were we to disagree? Evaluating the impact of McCain’s experience in Vietnam, none other than Henry Kissinger proclaimed “I think being a war hero has given him the inward strength to do things that the ordinary politician wouldn’t do.” Kissinger may well have been right, but he only told half the story: McCain gave us that strength, too.