John McCain: Con­tro­ver­sial hero

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - By­ron York Colum­nist

There have been some ugly com­ments re­cently about Sen. John McCain. With the sen­a­tor at home in Ari­zona fight­ing brain can­cer, a young White House aide re­port­edly told col­leagues they need not worry about his ob­jec­tions to CIA nom­i­nee Gina Haspel be­cause, “It doesn’t mat­ter, he’s dy­ing any­way.” At the same time, a re­tired three-star Air Force gen­eral sug­gested McCain co­op­er­ated with his North Viet­namese cap­tors in his five-plus years in cap­tiv­ity, say­ing McCain’s nick­name was “song­bird John” — a base­less charge that dates back to dirty tricks against McCain in the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

The slan­ders set off vi­cious bat­tles on Twit­ter, with still more in­sults to McCain. In re­sponse, the sen­a­tor’s al­lies and sup­port­ers rushed to his de­fense.

McCain is hav­ing a mo­ment, even as he deals with a ter­ri­ble ill­ness and is not ex­pected to re­turn to Wash­ing­ton. Next week, he will re­lease what is be­ing por­trayed as a vale­dic­tory book, “The Rest­less Wave.” Nonethe­less, ar­gu­ments about McCain, both civil and not, will con­tinue to the very end, and be­yond.

Why? Be­cause of the sheer com­plex­ity of John McCain. He has lived a big life with ac­com­plish­ments few can match. But in the course of that life, he has also an­tag­o­nized some who should be al­lies.

McCain’s years as a pris­oner of war in Viet­nam will al­ways de­fine his bi­og­ra­phy. He showed courage and en­durance un­der con­di­tions most Amer­i­cans can­not imag­ine. He is rightly cel­e­brated for that.

But McCain’s valor came in a war Amer­ica did not win and which re­mains di­vi­sive to this day. And some par­tic­i­pants in the Viet­nam War are still mad at each other; for ex­am­ple, the re­tired Air Force gen­eral who called McCain “song­bird,” Thomas McIn­er­ney, him­self has an im­pres­sive record of hun­dreds of mis­sions over Viet­nam. More than a decade ago, the Viet­nam fight was over John Kerry and swift boats. Di­vi­sions re­main.

In pol­i­tics, McCain’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer has been marked by a some­times-testy re­la­tion­ship with Repub­li­can Party doc­trine and vot­ers. In the 2000 GOP pres­i­den­tial pri­maries, his de­feat of then-Texas Gov. Ge­orge W. Bush in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary led to a nasty show­down in South Carolina. Bush won, McCain lost, and some in the press came away with the im­pres­sion that Bush had smeared McCain. On the other hand, some Repub­li­cans came away with the im­pres­sion that McCain, who styled him­self a “mav­er­ick,” would go out of his way to ir­ri­tate his party.

Mean­while, McCain cul­ti­vated a re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia that was so close he some­times re­ferred to them as “my base.” McCain knew that many press types ad­mired him be­cause of his fond­ness for stick­ing it to the GOP.

McCain would run a more con­ven­tional cam­paign in 2008, show­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary drive and re­silience. When his pri­mary cam­paign went broke and nearly col­lapsed, McCain — 71 years old, wealthy and with a safe seat in the Se­nate — still trudged through the early vot­ing states, ad­dress­ing small crowds, strug­gling to stay in the game. He looked like a goner more than once in the GOP pri­maries, yet still ended up win­ning the nom­i­na­tion.

But after the dis­mal fail­ures of two Bush terms — a ma­jor war started by mis­take and an eco­nomic melt­down at the end — in the gen­eral elec­tion, McCain found him­self run­ning in the face of per­haps the strongest po­lit­i­cal head­winds ever. Toss in a charis­matic and his­tory-mak­ing op­po­nent, and there was no way he could win.

Still, McCain re­mained a fac­tor in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. In 2015, when Don­ald Trump at­tacked McCain — “I like peo­ple who weren’t cap­tured” — it set off a firestorm. Trump, who avoided ser­vice in Viet­nam, de­famed a man with a hugely dis­tin­guished record. Still, Trump’s words did not do ter­ri­ble dam­age to his can­di­dacy, in part be­cause a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Repub­li­can vot­ers had mixed feel­ings about McCain.

McCain’s fi­nal act of an­ger­ing Repub­li­cans came in July 2017, when he cast the de­ci­sive vote to kill the GOP ef­fort to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare.

McCain has a war record of pure hero­ism. He has a po­lit­i­cal record of real achieve­ment, but also per­haps more than his share of the con­tro­versy that goes with pol­i­tics.

John McCain lived a great, pa­tri­otic life, do­ing more in ser­vice to the United States than his crit­ics, or al­most any­one else. When he dies, why not re­mem­ber that?

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