It is important to first acknowledge that, when captured in Vietnam, John McCain did not use his privileged position as an Admiral’s son to put himself ahead of his fellow American prisoners. He could have gone home. Instead he endured torture in a Vietnamese prison camp for five and a half years. That was an act of uncommon will. It was an act of bravery.
Unfortunately, John McCain demonstrated a far lower standard during his subsequent political career. Unlike in Vietnam, he put himself before his fellow American citizens. Yes, Sen McCain was an invaluable ally for the caring of Veterans and discussions about America’s engagement of battlefield torture. But, so too, he was an opponent of Native Americans and their rights as the original Americans.
These, however, are comparatively smaller issues in his very long career. If the actions of a person near the end of their life reflect an accumulated wisdom, then John McCain surely does not deserve any accolades at all.
His last vote as a Senator occurred on December 2, 2017. He voted to provide the wealthiest small fraction of the country – a fraction of which he was part – more of the nation’s riches at the expense of the rest of us. When you hear about how the United States is in increasing debt, remember that Sen John McCain was one of the 51 votes that created the problem. When you see yourself slipping behind in a country of increasingly wider gaps between the haves and the have-nots, remember that you were not of concern to Sen McCain.
Earlier in the same year, in April, he voted to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. This was a spot on the bench that had originally opened during the Obama Administration but was not permitted to be filled. That’s because, in an unprecedented move, the Republicans in the Senate, McCain included, refused to even hold hearings on then-President Obama’s nomination, Judge Merrick Garland. And if the point hadn’t been made clear enough while the Senate was blocking Obama’s nomination, in October 2016 McCain said: “I promise you that we [Republicans] will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.” Such an attitude is, also, unprecedented. And it is part of McCain’s lasting legacy.
But both of these two actions, sending the Nation on a dangerously unstable financial path and proceeding against established political norms to essentially steal a life-time judicial appointment, pale to Sen John McCain’s most destructive act against our Nation: the full unleashing of the dangerous radical right-wing forces that have come to dominate the country’s political dialog. His 2008 appointment of Gov Sarah Palin to his national ticket was made in a political panic. He never atoned for this recklessness: the lifting of the previously obscure, and highly unqualified, Palin into the national spotlight. It was Sarah Palin, after all, who became the populist galvanizing force for the formation of what is now known as the Tea Party. Even during the 2008 campaign, she tugged at the dark racist underbelly of the electorate, and quite effectively. While it is true that McCain famously “corrected” a voter that then-candidate Obama was not “an Arab,” the correction was hardly in a forceful manner. It was a tepid, timid response to the gathering forces sparked and whipped up, in part, by his running mate.
Far from his self-touted “Maverick” label, John McCain similarly avoided directly chastising the Republican leadership in Congress – which is now the real power behind the Trump administration.
So perhaps it is simply karmic justice that those same forces he refused to quell in life are now mocking him in death. For John McCain never apologized to the country for his errors in the 2008 campaign. John McCain never made an attempt to heal the deep gashes in the body politic that he, himself, helped create. As a near-permanent fixture on the Sunday political talk shows, he never once used that national platform to correct, forcefully and clearly, the damage he helped initiate.
John McCain is hardly a profile in courage. The will he demonstrated as a patriot in a Vietnam prison camp did not follow him home to the United States Congress.
There is no need to “hate” Sen McCain or celebrate his passing. Those are acts that corrode our own souls. But neither is there a reason to laud him or be led into a media groupthink to speak kindly of the dead. If our nation today seems in a precarious position, perhaps it is a result of our ready desire to excuse and forgive the poor behavior of our leaders, those that are elected to a powerful pulpit but do not champion the ones who elect them. If, in the end, John McCain looks like “one of the good ones,” it is only because, under his feckless and weak political will, he helped lower the bar of what we expect from government officials.