PBS’ “Frontline” offers a look tonight.
“McCain,” the episode of the PBS series “Frontline,” frames the senior senator from Arizona in the context of President Donald Trump. What isn’t these days? There’s nothing shocking or particularly revelatory about the episode, certainly not for anyone familiar with Sen. John McCain’s career. But it’s a pretty comprehensive look — as comprehensive as anything can be in a little less than an hour — offering praise for his selfstyled maverick reputation while not ignoring scandal and controversy.
And it puts a sizable amount of the responsibility — some would call it blame — for the current state of the Republican Party squarely on his shoulders for one reason: choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate when he ran for president in 2008. It’s characterized as a strategic decision, a needed appeal to the ultra-conservatives that were becoming the GOP base, that got away from him.
Director and producer Michael Kirk begins the episode, which airs tonight, with McCain casting the decisive vote to stop Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” It was a legitimately dramatic moment, with McCain, who had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer days before, striding silently to the front of the Senate and casting a thumbsdown vote. (One thing I hadn’t seen — or, more accurately heard: isolated audio catches gasps from McCain’s colleagues as he walks back to his seat.)
That sets the tone, with McCain portrayed as a man who does his own thing. Sometimes that helps him. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Kirk revisits McCain’s capture and imprisonment in Vietnam after his fighter jet was shot down, and includes footage of McCain tearfully explaining, while lying in bed severely wounded, what happened, and telling his wife he hoped to see her again. We also hear McCain’s voice as he finally agrees, after brutal, continuing torture, to read a “confession” — an act that troubled him greatly. Yet we also hear of his refusal to be released ahead of prisoners who were there longer than he was. There is no question of his resolve or his heroism.
Except, of course, on the part of Trump, who during his campaign for president famously said of McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”
Kirk includes video footage of Trump saying this, and it’s more striking than just reading the words. In the context of the video, Trump senses that the crowd is taken aback, but he won’t back down. It’s a representative moment.
The episode delves into McCain’s entry into public life. He came back a war hero, and the military showcased him.
Politics seemed like the next logical step. He was elected to Congress and then the Senate.
McCain came up through a Washington that relied on more-bipartisan efforts to get things done. Now, getting things done seems less important than strutting your partisan bona fides.
Will that, however unwittingly, be part of McCain’s legacy? The answer is complex, like McCain’s career. “McCain” can’t answer it fully, but it’s a worthwhile start to the conversation.