John McCain: Controversial hero
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?
Byron York Columnist