John McCain: The Myth Of The Maverick

The former POW could have been remembered as a true patriot but his choice to put party before people has complicated his legacy.
In this image from video provided by C-SPAN2, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017 (C-SPAN2 via AP)

In this image from video provided by C-SPAN2, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017 (C-SPAN2 via AP)

Yesterday I wrote a story about a hero and a patriot who had the opportunity to provide one last great service to his country. Today I hit delete on that narrative and watched as a man diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer flew 2,400 miles to vote for a motion to proceed on a healthcare bill that would take away healthcare from millions of fellow Americans. Patriotism in the Republican party is dead and John McCain just put the nail in the coffin.

John McCain has confused the ideals of duty and loyalty with blind allegiance to his own party. Once defined by his principles, McCain has become a shadow of the heroic figure that captured America’s imagination. I had hoped that when faced with his own mortality and the gravity of legacy, Senator McCain would act with decency. I had thought where the GOP faltered, McCain might have found the courage to act on his convictions.

But the arc of this narrative doesn’t seem to bend towards justice. This isn’t the story of a hero or a villain. It’s the tragic tale of a country that has been ripped from its democratic roots and left to die by the hands of leaders who have betrayed their own constituents. John McCain has become a prime actor in his party’s atrocity today and history will remember him for it.

A Maverick’s Muddled Career

Descended from a family of four-star admirals, McCain became a naval aviator who was shot down and taken prisoner in Vietnam. Tortured for five years before his release, McCain returned home with injuries that would become lifelong disabilities but refused an honorable discharge. He fulfilled his commitment to the Navy and completed his tour of service, exhibiting the stubborn stoicism that has become a trademark of the Senator’s career.

Photo Credit: AP Photo, John McCain shakes President Richard Nixon’s hand after his release in 1973, following five years as a prisoner in Vietnam.

Photo Credit: AP Photo, John McCain shakes President Richard Nixon’s hand after his release in 1973, following five years as a prisoner in Vietnam.

Once home, John McCain promptly turned his attention towards politics. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, McCain would serve two terms before being tapped to succeed icon Barry Goldwater in the Senate. While John saw Goldwater as a pivotal conservative influence, he doesn’t seem to have forged his own path as a decisive leader in the GOP until much later.

Senator McCain earned a reputation for bi-partisan leadership after working with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass campaign finance reform measures. And in the 1990s, McCain developed a close friendship with John Kerry, a fellow veteran, and together they advocated lifting sanctions to Vietnam and improving diplomatic relations. The Arizona senator was part of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” who held bi-partisan negotiations on immigration reform. And McCain, with support from Bernie Sanders, spearheaded efforts to overhaul the VA’s overburdened health care system.

These are the stories that were retold last week in the glow of eulogy by well-meaning colleagues. Of McCain the Maverick, who fearlessly crossed party lines to stay true to his ideals. But Senator McCain’s legacy is much more complicated than a handful of congenial Congressional relationships and legislative success stories.

His role as one of the Keating Five, who were accused of corruption in 1989, has tarnished McCain’s career to this day. And the Arizona senator’s reputation as a hawk who pushes for increased involvement in the Middle East has earned him accusations of war-mongering. Perhaps most troubling of all was his choice of Sarah Palin as a 2008 running mate. While those close to McCain argue he was a pragmatist who saw the rise of the Trump voter and simply bowed to the inevitable, others were disappointed by the Maverick’s endorsement of Tea Party politics.

McCain and Palin on the campaign trail in 2008.

McCain and Palin on the campaign trail in 2008.

After the 2008 election loss, McCain seemed to retreat, choosing to tow the party line of anti-Obama obstructionism. And while he withdrew his support of Donald Trump after the unsavory comments from the Access Hollywood tapes went public, it was too little too late. Today, analysis indicates John McCain votes with Trump and the Republican Party 90% of the time. The Maverick has officially left the building, and with his return to Congress today to repeal healthcare, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see that man again.

The Courage of His Convictions

I will not deny that John McCain has exhibited character and courage when it mattered most. As a POW chosen for early release ahead of fellow lower-ranking prisoners, McCain taunted his captors and refused favoritism. Years later, John forgave his torture at the hands of a country consumed by war and acted to ease human suffering. Senator McCain has been a staunch and vocal opponent of enhanced interrogation tactics like waterboarding, even when his party found those methods expedient in the wake of 9/11.

And in the 2008 election, cornered by cries of panic from xenophobic and racist supporters, McCain acted with dignity. He called Obama a “decent” man, reassured the crowd that they had nothing to fear, and refused to entertain conspiracy theories about Barack’s ethnicity.

Just last week, McCain exhibited a spark of his old fire, breaking with his party to encourage a bipartisan solution to healthcare reform.

“The Congress must now return to regular order, hold hearings, receive input from members of both parties, and heed the recommendations of our nation’s governors so that we can produce a bill that finally provides Americans with access to quality and affordable health care.”- John McCain, July 17th, 2017

That statement stands in stark contrast to his current actions in the same way that the Senator's political career seems to belay his military one. We see a man who opposes torture, but advocates war. Someone who supports healthcare for all Americans, but uses his voice in the Senate to lead the charge against it.

It’s the same feeling of puzzlement we felt watching McCain rush down the tarmac and onto the Senate floor, voting to proceed on a bill that several minutes later, his comments condemned. The Maverick seems to be confused as to whether his role is one of friend or foe. John McCain had the opportunity to show great leadership today and he let it slip through his fingers.

If John McCain had chosen to act on the courage of his convictions today, he could have delivered on his 2008 campaign promise to “Put Country First.” He’s one of the few GOP leaders who hold the kind of influence necessary to rally the party and ensure a check on presidential power. As Trump continues to threaten Mueller and tweet about the possibilities of pardons, we look to Republicans like John McCain for evidence that politicians are ready to put country before party. Our democracy depends upon it.

There is no doubt that Senator John McCain, six term veteran, former POW, and 2008 Presidential nominee, is a man who has served his country with great distinction. In the wake of the 80-year old politician’s potentially terminal diagnosis last week, many rushed to eulogize a career filled with patriotic endeavors and glowing accolades from colleagues. John McCain, reeling in the wake of his diagnosis, should have been thinking less about debts of loyalty and more about the kind of legacy he might bequeath us.

We have no shortage of inspiration for what the kind of courage that facing down death can inspire. Take former Utah Senator and lifetime Republican Bob Bennett, who spent his final days in the hospital apologizing to Muslims for the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump. Or Claire Engle, weakened by a brain tumor and too sick to stand or speak, who took to the Senate floor in 1964 to become the deciding vote that would break the filibuster and enact a historic Civil Rights bill.

John McCain had a unique opportunity to provide a final great service to his country. To rally the GOP and lead the charge to remove an unfit President and save a nation teetering on the brink of totalitarianism. To ensure healthcare coverage for millions of Americans who deserve not to die in poverty, sick and neglected by their fellow citizens. And by doing so, McCain could have cemented his legacy of courage and patriotism.

Instead, he gave us this obscene spectacle, freshly stumbling from his hospital bed on the cusp of a terminal diagnosis, to ensure the people he represent will not receive the care they need under similar circumstances. And while he might eventually vote no on the bill, McCain’s support on the motion to proceed allows McConnell to continue to push for repeal rather than work for bi-partisan solutions. After a career spent in the service of his country, McCain has failed to discharge his duties or serve his constituents honorably. I can’t imagine a more tragic final act than that.

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