John McCain was an American patriot, hero and politician. As the Vietnam war raged, he was held for five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi’s main Hòa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” Offered an early release by the North Vietnamese because he was the son and grandson of four-star navy admirals, McCain declined. He put his country and men first, and now he is gone.
McCain’s tenure in the Senate will be most likely remembered for his stance as an institutionalist, his wit, and his friendships that transcended partisanship. Truly, some of McCain’s best friends were Democrats.
McCain was close to former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and could share a laugh with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. He was also known to have looked up to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. For good measure, McCain could also knock back a boilermaker with Hillary Clinton.
Finally, per McCain’s personal request, Barack Obama will deliver a eulogy and Joe Biden will be a pallbearer at his funeral.
To be sure, McCain’s legislative record was thinner than his friendships. McCain-Feingold, the bipartisan campaign finance bill, saw its way into law only to be hollowed out by the Supreme Court. The senator’s bid for comprehensive immigration reform ultimately withered on the vine.
Still, McCain’s iconic thumbs-down to Obamacare repeal will likely be remembered long after his passing. As McCain’s closest friend in the senate, Lindsey Graham, said: “He taught me that principle and compromise are not mutually exclusive, and are the foundation of a great person as well as a great nation.”
After losing the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 to George W. Bush in a bitterly personal primary contest, McCain dusted himself off, returned to the Senate, and then went all out for the GOP’s nod in 2008. When polls showed him lagging, McCain doubled-down, lived off the land, and emerged with the nomination in hand — only to lose to Barack Obama in November.
Turning to the Middle East, McCain was ever the warrior, romantic and proponent of regime change — a volatile brew. He acknowledged that the Iraq War could not be judged as anything other than a serious mistake, and “accepted” his “share of the blame”. Yet it is unclear what lessons McCain eventually drew from more than a decade of war.
McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate crystalized the unstated reality that the Republican Party was morphing into a white working class party. Looking back at his choice of Palin, McCain mused in his recent memoir, “The Restless Wave,” that he should have tapped Lieberman in her stead. Even so, McCain wrote, “She didn’t put herself on the ticket. I did. I asked her to go through an experience that was wearing me down, that wears every candidate down. I made mistakes and misjudgments, too.”
The public outpouring for McCain stems in no small measure from his continuous refusal to bend the knee to Trump. Following the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, McCain withdrew his endorsement of the then-presidential candidate. McCain also mocked Trump for his five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, and savaged the intellectual underpinnings of Trumpism as “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
History mattered to McCain, and for him, America was about its promise. So ends an era.
By Lloyd Green
An attorney in New York, Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign and served in the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992.