Sen. John McCain shakes hands with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017.
Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith, courtesy James N. Mattis.
Sen. John McCain was the sort of public figure who commanded respect, even when you didn’t agree with him. In my case, this was surprisingly often considering I joined his party a decade ago.
McCain’s family announced on Friday that the Arizona Republican had ceased medical treatment for the aggressive brain cancer he disclosed last summer; death came the next day, sparking an outpouring of tributes from political allies and adversaries alike – with the notable exception of President Donald Trump, who issued only a brief tweet offering condolences to the late senator’s family.
It was a low-key end to a long and notable lifetime of public service. McCain never cast a single legislative vote in 2018, having left Washington in December to receive care at home. I found it a bit odd that a man whose sense of duty governed his career clung to office in a way that deprived his fellow Arizonans of half their Senate voting power when he could have stepped down and allowed a governor of his own party to appoint his successor. Odd, but understandable and very human. It is hard to face the fact that we will never again be able to do the things we have done.
A son and grandson of admirals, McCain himself was a naval aviator who survived a fire on an aircraft carrier only to be shot down and imprisoned by North Vietnam. He spent more than five years in captivity, suffering torture that left him with lifelong disabilities. He refused to be released early (an option because his captors found it useful to highlight their power over the son of a U.S. admiral) and declined to meet with antiwar activists whose travels to Hanoi provided propaganda fodder to the enemy. Someone like that deserves respect, regardless of his politics.
McCain retired from the Navy as a captain, ran for the U.S. House in 1982 and served two terms before winning Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat in 1986. He would go on to win four more Senate elections, most recently in 2016.
But he lost in 2000 when he challenged George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination, and he lost to Barack Obama after winning the nomination in 2008. It was between those two dates that McCain cast himself as the “maverick” Republican who could work across party lines despite his highly conservative views on social issues (notably abortion) and international affairs. Perhaps most famously, he co-authored the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation (technically, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) that sought to constrain political spending in national politics. Most of McCain’s fellow Republicans, myself included, felt that the legislation impaired Americans’ First Amendment rights to individually and collectively participate in public discourse, and a series of Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United, have adopted that view to a considerable extent.
More recently, in the summer of 2017 McCain cast critical votes that prevented congressional Republicans from fulfilling their long-standing pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. At first McCain’s objection was to the failure to follow “regular order” in bringing the legislation to the floor, but in the end it was more about burnishing his image and legacy as a bipartisan statesman. It was again odd that he chose to take this stand on one of the most partisan issues in a highly partisan era. McCain had opposed the Affordable Care Act when it was passed, like every other Republican in Congress at the time. President Trump is not alone among Republicans who haven’t exactly forgiven McCain, although the president has been singularly crass and publicly rude about it in light of McCain’s illness.
To put it mildly, there was no love lost between the two men. Trump launched the feud during his campaign with his remarks that McCain was not a war hero for having been captured, and McCain opposed Trump’s nominee to run the CIA over her failure to reject post-9/11 interrogations that the senator viewed as amounting to torture. Even from his sickbed this year, McCain kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the president on foreign policy matters. This is a president who notoriously takes criticism poorly.
They were a curious juxtaposition, Trump and McCain. Despite all the quarreling, when it comes down to policy, they agreed with one another much more than they disagreed, and certainly much more than either of them agreed with the opposition Democrats. Yet if Trump represents the present and – dare we say it – the future of his party, or of politics in general, McCain was a throwback to the past. He longed for a pragmatic and less personal brand of politics, one that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nuked years before Trump arrived in Washington.
Side note: Trump is not the first Republican to get unduly personal with McCain. At a pivotal point in the 2000 presidential primaries, a repulsive whisper campaign circulated in South Carolina Republican circles that (aside from other slurs about McCain and his family) McCain had secretly fathered an “illegitimate black child.” The McCains had adopted a Bangladeshi daughter from Mother Teresa’s orphanage; her photo was circulated on unattributed flyers. George W. Bush, whose campaign was then reeling after losing to McCain in New Hampshire, denied involvement, but there are few people in politics not named Bush who believe that denial.
As tributes to McCain poured in from many quarters this weekend, the White House was initially silent. Trump’s staff put out the word that the president would say nothing while McCain still lived, and he didn’t. He merely offered his “deepest sympathies and respect ... to the family of Senator John McCain” in a tweet after his death was announced. McCain had already made it known that he did not want Trump to attend his funeral. More graciously, first lady Melania Trump tweeted a posthumous “Thank you Senator McCain for your service to the nation.”
According to The Hill, eulogies for McCain are expected to be delivered by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. In death as in life, McCain commands the respect even of those who opposed him. Most of them, anyway.