Monday, August 27, 2018

What the McCain Eulogies Say About Us

The response to John McCain has been absolutely fascinating. It says a lot more about where we are as a country in the age of Trump than it does about McCain. We seem to be hungering for a hero who reflects the America we wish we had, someone whose heroism brings us reflective glory, someone who personifies public service, dedication to country, not party, a truth-teller and a statesman. There aren’t many examples of such a person in politics right now, and so McCain has been elevated. A sampling of headlines:

  •  John McCain, 2008 Presidential Nominee Who Was Driven By Code of Honor, Dies at 81 (WaPo)
  • John McCain and the Lost Art of Decency (The Atlantic) 
  • Great-Heart is Gone (The Atlantic)
  • John McCain, independent voice of the GOP establishment, dies at 81 (NBC)
  • John McCain, Last Lion of the Senate (NYT)
  • John McCain, towering senator and GOP ‘maverick,’ dies (Politico)
McCain served his country much of his life, was a 5-year POW, and GOP candidate for President. He deserves honor for these things, and even veneration for the way he handled his time as a POW. (It’s amazing that he was able to function at all when he got out.)

But he was in so many other ways a flawed vehicle for the title of “hero.” After Vietnam, he had a number of affairs and ultimately divorced his wife of 15 years to marry one of his mistresses. He was a member of the Keating Five, and even he admitted this corruption acted as “my asterisk.” During the 80s he supported Reagan’s backing of the Contras and famously met with Pinochet. This was characteristic of his approach to foreign policy, where he pursued maximal intervention. He always felt Vietnam could have been won, and was the staunchest supporter of the Iraq war (2003), wanting as late as 2008 to send many more troops there, believing the war was winnable.

He was continually wrong about intervention and foreign policy, and yet even today the Wall Street Journal wrote, amazingly: “As a third-generation naval officer and his detention in Vietnam, Mr. McCain had the moral authority and stature to question the executive branch, the Pentagon and its top military officers in a way few others are able or willing to do.”

He carefully cultivated the image as an independent (brilliantly branded as a “maverick”) and did have a couple issues of disagreement with his party (immigration, campaign finance). Yet he was a reliable conservative and almost always supported his party, particularly GOP presidents. And, when his campaign was in trouble in 2008, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, a figure who made Donald Trump a more plausible candidate eight years later.

Every politician who serves for decades will have important wins to go along with missteps. I don’t mean to suggest McCain should be overly criticized. His service should be honored. But he was a flawed man who got much wrong as a politician. (In his autobiography this year, he admitted Iraq was a mistake.) In writing these over-the-top eulogies, Americans are telling themselves a comforting story: honor and bravery still exists among our leaders; there are still those who serve the constitution first and put politics second.

It’s not a terrible instinct and I can see why McCain is the focal point for this lionizing. (Ted Kennedy, another flawed person, got quite a bit of positive coverage after his death.) But it’s telling that we need a hero so badly right now.

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