John McSame has died.
Any decent obituary of John McCain has to be as much about the media fawning over him as about the man himself. This was a not a good man and yet no one was more lionized by the Beltway media establishment in the entire recent history of American politics; possibly no one since John F. Kennedy has received more fawning coverage and much of that for JFK was post-1963. Why McCain received this adoration may remain a mystery to historians for years because it’s completely nonsensical based on the man’s actual career. And yet, the media could never get enough of him. McCain claimed to have the most Meet the Press appearances all-time over its long run, and it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t, although in 2007, NBC said it was Bob Dole, but that was before another decade of weekly McCain appearances.
McCain was born in the Canal Zone in 1936 to a Naval Air officer. A military brat, the family traveled around all the time and finally McCain went to high school in the DC area. He entered the Naval Academy, as his father and grandfather had done. He was largely terrible, graduating 894th in a class of 899. McCain was a partier and a ladies’ man who took the social life more seriously than his early air training. But he managed to become a competent, if risk-taking pilot. He got married in 1965 and then went to Vietnam, where he asked for a combat assignment. On his 23rd mission, he was shot down over North Vietnam and nearly died, first from his injuries and landing in water, and then from being beaten after the villagers rescued him. After all, he was raining fire on them and killing them left and right. The reaction of the villagers is entirely understandable.
When the North Vietnamese discovered that McCain’s father was an admiral, he became a showpiece for them and he was treated a little better and received medical care for his wounds, although he certainly received his share of brutality after that too. He was moved from prison to prison, including two years of solitary confinement than began in March 1968. Torture started to break him. He considered suicide but was interrupted while preparing for it. He signed a bogus confession, and was later ashamed, but of course no one can really stand up to torture. He finally was released from prison in 1973, after five hellish years. Whether all this makes him a “hero” or not is a question I guess you will have to decide. I certainly don’t question the man’s toughness or personal bravery. I don’t find the term hero particularly useful and I’m unclear how this qualifies someone for the title as opposed to, I don’t know, organizing people to lift themselves out of poverty, but this is a battle I recognize I will never win. In any case, I don’t think his history should have meant anything when it came to political respectability but of course it did.
McCain returned to the U.S. and went back to his high-partying ways, making up for lost time. He had affair after affair, destroying his marriage to the woman who had waited all those years for him, a woman who had suffered through a severe car crash in the meantime. But McCain was now a celebrity and had huge ambition to take advantage of that. He entered the political world in 1977 when he became the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, introducing him to basically everybody. Still married, he began dating Cindy Hensley, the daughter of a very wealthy beer distributor. He pressured his first wife into a divorce, married Cindy, and then used her money to finance his burgeoning political career. How sure was this political career by this time? His groomsmen were Gary Hart and William Cohen. He resigned from the Navy in 1981 and prepared to run for office. Cindy’s dad hired McCain into his company and that put him firmly in the Arizona elite, where he got to know such useful people as the financier Charles Keating. Cindy funded his 1982 entrance into electoral politics, when he won an election to Congress from Arizona-01.
When McCain entered Congress, he was really nothing more than a bog-standard Republican. For a guy who made his real reputation on foreign policy, his foreign policy stances were terrible. He embraced right-wing dictators in Latin America. He traveled to Chile to meet with Augusto Pinochet. When Reagan illegally funded the Contras to overthrow the Sandinista Revolution, McCain loved it. McCain also showed his bipartisan maverickocity by taking a really brave stand—opposing making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday! Why, I haven’t seen such Republican leadership since Dick Cheney did all he could to help apartheid South Africa! McCain later said he regretted this—in hindsight, I believe him. But it doesn’t really matter what your views are when something becomes so normalized that it is universal. This is like saying one opposes slavery in 2018. Who doesn’t?!? What matters is what you did when it was time to make the decision? And as he would through most, albeit not all of his career, he failed miserably when the rubber met the road.
Of course, none of this hurt him with right-wing Arizona voters and he won election to the Senate in 1986. He continued with many of his well-defined interests. His noted love of gambling and close ties with the gambling industry led him to sponsor the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. He took a seat on the Armed Service Committee, using it to make his love of American militarism his top policy priority. He was a big supporter of Gramm-Rudman, forcing automatic budget cuts when budget deficits occurred, deficits that were likely given McCain’s love of big things that go boom and cost lots of money. He made a positive impression on the media early on, leading to speculation that George Bush could name his VP candidate in 1988. Let’s face it—that would have been a much better choice for Bush than Dan Quayle!
What got John McCain his first major spotlight in the Senate? Being a member of the Keating Five. His Arizona buddy Keating had given McCain well over $100,000 in campaign contributions, had given him free flights, and all the other quasi-legal or slightly illegal perks of political influence. So when the federal government came after Keating for his crimes, he sought to cash in with McCain and the other politicians he had purchased. With that kind of corruption, you can see why the media fawned over him! Basically, McCain, Alan Cranston, John Glenn, Dennis DeConcini, and Donald Riegle intervened to protect the interests of Charles Keating in the Savings and Loan scandal, getting the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to back off its investigation. Keating had contributed $1.3 million to the five senators and this came out when the company collapsed in 1989, defrauding 23,000 bondholders. But hey, McCain actually did work with Democrats on that one! The Phoenix New Times’ Tom Fitzpatrick, in 1989:
You’re John McCain, a fallen hero who wanted to become president so desperately that you sold yourself to Charlie Keating, the wealthy con man who bears such an incredible resemblance to The Joker.
Obviously, Keating thought you could make it to the White House, too.
He poured $112,000 into your political campaigns. He became your friend. He threw fund raisers in your honor. He even made a sweet shopping-center investment deal for your wife, Cindy. Your father-in-law, Jim Hensley, was cut in on the deal, too.
Nothing was too good for you. Why not? Keating saw you as a prime investment that would pay off in the future
So he flew you and your family around the country in his private jets. Time after time, he put you up for serene, private vacations at his vast, palatial spa in the Bahamas. All of this was so grand. You were protected from what Thomas Hardy refers to as “the madding crowd.” It was almost as though you were already staying at a presidential retreat.
Like the old song, that now seems “Long ago and far away.”
Since Keating’s collapse, you find yourself doing obscene things to save yourself from the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation. As a matter of course, you engage in backbiting behavior that will turn you into an outcast in the Senate if you do survive.
It’s amazing that all the media lauding of McCain over the past decades totally forgets his corruption! But the people of Arizona didn’t care either and he won reelection in 1992 with 56% of the vote.
Here’s the key thing to know about John McCain—he really loved killing brown people around the world to show other nations how tough the United States is. Little defines him more than that. Every time there was a crisis with another nation, one usually created by American militarism—every time!—he would go on TV and massively exaggerate its importance to demonstrate the need for Americans to show toughness and, of course, bomb people. And sure, giving manly campaign speeches on the crisis in Georgia in 2008 that lifted from Wikipedia might have shown his utter intellectual vacuity, but he’s so tough and mavericky!
And then there is his class that one can only love. I mean, who but a true hero to journalists would tell the following joke, as McCain did to Republican funders in the late 1990s:
“Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly?”
“Because Janet Reno is her father.”
Ha ha ha. What mavericktude! Making fun of the looks of both a teenage girl and a pioneering Cabinet official. This is a good summary of that joke:
“The remark packed into its 15 words several layers of misogyny. It disparaged the looks of Chelsea, then 18 and barely out of high school; it portrayed Reno as a man at a time when she was serving as the first female US attorney general; and it implied that Hillary Clinton was engaged in a lesbian affair while the Monica Lewinsky scandal was blazing. Not bad going, Senator McCain.”
God, what a great American! No wonder we laud him as a hero!
Now, look, McCain wasn’t a legendarily bad senator, particularly in comparison with other early twenty-first century Republicans. On some issues, he did good things. He helped normalize relations with Vietnam and was a critical voice on this issue when it was still sensitive since the diehard POW-MIA people wanted to fight the war forever, determined that evil Asian commies were still holding our boys in torturous cells, imagining Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter as a daily occurrence in the 1980s. And while his wife’s fortune is what propelled him into office, he did recognize that outside campaign funding was a problem in our political system. McCain-Feingold is not my favorite piece of legislation but it moved the ball toward a goal of better democracy and was probably the best bill that could be passed at the time, or since. Of course, at the same time, he was receiving contributions from the same companies he was supposed to be regulating as head of the Senate Commerce Committee. He wanted to regulate the tobacco industry more heavily, which is hardly controversial, but of course was at the time. So, fine. McCain is not Jesse Helms or James Inhofe or Ted Cruz.
McCain also very badly wanted to be president. So he played up to the Republican base on 90 percent of issues. And of course he was horrible on Bill Clinton. I strongly dislike Bill Clinton for many reasons, but the impeachment proceedings were a direct attack on American democracy, sheer political partisanship for short-term gain. Now, a real political maverick would have noted that even though the president who had been impeached was not a member of my political party, this is a bunch of nonsense that breaks the norms McCain gave lip service to respecting. Naturally, McCain did the opposite and voted for conviction. He followed up this red meat to the Republican base with a book, the sure sign that a politician is thinking about running for president. McCain decided to take on George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000.
Now, even though I am not painting a particularly positive picture of McCain, he was still suspect to the Republican elite because of his very occasional actions working with Democrats. The Straight Talk Express was mostly just pandering to a media that already saw McCain as their Republican daddy who would save us from more Democrats where the men act like women and the women act like men, to borrow from American sage Maureen Dowd. And so, Bush and his allies decided to undercut McCain in the dirtiest way they could get away with.
After McCain won New Hampshire, Karl Rove and his ratfuckers went low on McCain, actually accusing him of fathering a black child out of wedlock, a reference to his adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Of course, this worked like a charm in South Carolina, Strom Thurmond having done this very thing notwithstanding. This was basically the end of the McCain campaign, with Bush winning big among evangelicals, those so-called values voters, who vote in favor of the most racist candidate possible and who love noted moral titan Donald Trump today, just as Baby Jesus would do. McCain won a few more states, but after Super Tuesday, was through.
There was some thought that McCain would have his revenge on Bush, especially after Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and gave the Senate back to the Democrats. And there was enough of the asshole in McCain to believe this was possible. But in the end, even if Bush and friends had screwed him over personally, McCain is a genuine right-winger and liked basically all of Bush’s policies. So why would he have done this? Plus, he still wanted to be president really bad and that would kill his chances. So more or less, McCain just became a bog-standard Republican again, like he almost always was.
So McCain spent the Bush years cheerleading for the Iraq War except for the torture, which wouldn’t stop him from voting for the war but made for good soundbites to sound mavericky. He said publicly that the U.S. would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqis, which if that ever was true, didn’t last more than a New York minute. His main concern with the Iraq War in the early years was that we didn’t have enough troops there, publicly criticizing Donald Rumsfeld for believing we needed relatively few. And when the war did go disastrously for the United States, McCain was the main force in Congress behind the 2007 troop surge, which had some military effectiveness, but also made McCain completely unable to separate himself from an unpopular and pointless war at the moment he was preparing another run for the White House.
And he spent those years voting for basically every Bush domestic policy proposed. In his free time, he was on TV over and over and over again, maintaining his role as Big Media Hero. For example, the Beltway media loved McCain’s role in the Gang of 14, the bipartisan senators who crafted a compromise allowing Republicans to fill the judiciary with terrible conservative judges. But that was McCain’s game; work with gullible Democrats (of which there were so many in the 2000s) to fashion a policy agreement that allowed someone like Janice Rogers Brown through without a filibuster, all with the end game of then preserving the filibuster for Republicans when Democrats became president, which of course they used to unprecedented extremes. As for the Supreme Court, he said that John Roberts and Sam Alito were “two of the finest justices ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court.” On other policies, again, just a Republican seeking to move resources to the rich. Tax cuts for the rich? You bet!
On the other hand, McCain deserves some credit for not being an anti-immigration extremist. He pressed for comprehensive immigration reform, a project supported by people from George W. Bush to Ted Kennedy, with whom he cosponsored legislation. But there was no way that Republican legislators were going to seriously look to pass this bill and McCain wasn’t going to buck them enough to actually do something about it.
McCain’s 2008 presidential run was hardly predestined for success. An increasingly radicalized Republican base really hated that he wanted a reasonable solution for immigrants that did not deport them. He struggled with fundraising early on. But so did everyone else. The field was a mess, with Republicans deeply unpopular, a sadly impermanent state. Mike Huckabee was a clown who could win in Iowa, but what whackadoodle can’t win over Iowa Republicans? These are people who vote repeatedly for actual Nazi Steve King. But when he beat Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and Huckabee in South Carolina, it was pretty much over. Mr. Noun/Verb/9-11 completely failed and so did Mr. Reverse Mortgage Fred Thompson.
Who did Mr. Maverick announce as his vice-presidential candidate? Why, none other than Sarah Palin! How bipartisan, naming an ignoramus and quasi-fascist whose sole policy objective was making the libs cry! It’s worth noting how much McCain damaged the nation through this choice. Sarah Palin was an irresponsible, incompetent clown. But because she delivered red meat to the base and of course the racists who vote Republican loved it, her handlers and supporters realized that she was the ticket to the future. This wasn’t all on her; it’s not as if George Bush’s naming of Dan Quayle to the ticket in 1988 was all that different, even if he was a generation of wingnut before Palin. But in the aftermath, Palin-esque politicians—more competent and less self-involved—would deliver Republican victories by making white people feel good about expressing their resentments in the most crude way possible. This of course paved the way for Donald Trump, someone even less competent and more self-involved than Palin, but one even better at white supremacy. Thanks John.
In fact, it’s amazing that his entire 2008 campaign didn’t permanently kill his reputation. Even outside of Palin, McCain said nasty thing after nasty thing. Sure, he might have joked about pimping out his wife to bikers at the Sturgis rally, but that’s just boys being boys, amiright? There was his constant invocation of Joe the Plumber, an early rendition of the Trump campaign if there ever was one. McCain repeatedly tried to taint Obama by calling his policies “socialist.” By the end of the campaign, the entire world was relieved. Europeans especially had heard of the reputation of McCain, but ended up calling him John McSame, as they realized he was a very nasty old man who supported nearly all the failed policies of George W. Bush. Moreover, it’s not like McCain softened his positions. He still supported a constitutional amendment against abortion. He either wouldn’t or just couldn’t answer basic questions about sex education and whether contraception stops the spread of HIV. He campaigned on extending the Bush tax cuts through reducing Social Security but wouldn’t specify how that would work. Now that’s the kind of bipartisanship that excites the Beltway! He publicly said he would consult with Sam Brownback on judicial appointments, ensuring that whoever he named would be, well, someone like Neil Gorsuch.
Then there was the time he couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, or should I say his extremely wealthy wife. Turned out the answer was more than 10. Who can keep count! And really, that was a great answer in the middle of a housing crisis. I hadn’t seen a Republican presidential candidate as in touch with everyday people since the time George HW Bush was amazed at a grocery store checkout scanner.
Of course, nothing McCain said was enough for the rabid Republican base, who was dying for someone like Donald Trump. McCain rallies became openly racist and Islamophobic, with Republicans demanding he attack Obama in the most disgusting way possible. McCain did at least resist the worst of this.
Failing pretty miserably in the polls, McCain tried to get Barack Obama to suspend the campaign on September 24 so they could return to the Senate and work on the financial crisis. Not being an complete idiot, Obama refused. And as November rolled around, it was clear that McCain would get blown out of the water, which he did.
And here’s the rub—nothing about McCain’s lionization by the media before, during, or after his presidential campaign made any sense at all. With very few exceptions, he was just a standard right-wing Republican. He was nothing but a Goldwater follower who cared about foreign policy a lot. Basically, McCain’s relationship to the media comes out of their deep desire for a Republican Daddy who will protect their financial assets, make America look real tough on the international stage, provide lip service to international standards of behavior, and at least not sound like a maniac on social policy, despite his actual voting record. This is the ideal for our Beltway media and it’s disgusting.
McCain returned to the Senate in 2009 and played the exact same role as he had before. It’s amazing that he wasn’t subjected to the rule that losing presidential candidates must disappear after the election. Or wait, is that law only applied to female presidential candidates? Hmmm… Anyway, McCain remained the same bog standard hack he always was, talking about pork in the federal budget by bringing up hi-larious issues such as the government funding beaver management programs—as if that wasn’t an actual issue land managers face. There was a brief moment when he and Obama had a good relationship, but that ended as soon as Mitch McConnell decided the Republican strategy to losing power would be to destroy as many norms of American politics in the most cynical method he could. McCain joined this with aplomb, despite his mysteriously rehabbed reputation with the media as a bipartisan leader, having that reputation seriously damaged for about a month at the end of the election. McCain ripped Obama for pulling out of plans to build a missile defense complex in Poland that was unnecessary. Despite his previous support for doing something about climate change, he now refused to engage in any constructive legislation to address it. Not with Obama in the White House he wouldn’t! He led the filibuster to stop the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When it finally was repealed, he said that it was “a very sad day” that would undermine the military. And it’s true, how has the U.S. military functioned since what with all the gay sex? McCain hated the Affordable Care Act when it was passed, regardless of his later vote to save it. He once sponsored the DREAM Act, but now voted against it. I could go on. If McCain had been a maverick before, which he hadn’t, he was a full-fledged hack now.
Yes, McCain had some issues where he had respectable standards of decency. He consistently opposed torture, but then did absolutely nothing to object to pro-torture politicians outside of this narrow zone. He might vote against a particular nominee who had been directly involved in torture, but then would go on talk show after talk show defending the people who put said person there and the policies that led to the torture and would lead to more. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill was a good one, but again, once that began to be chipped away, McCain did nothing but support the very people responsible for it. After Benghazi, McCain was on the front lines accusing Hillary Clinton of awful things that she was not responsible for, calling it worse than Watergate and ensuring Susan Rice not succeed Hillary as Secretary of State. Of course, McCain was all about intensifying the war in Syria with the massive army of our supposed allies. What could have gone wrong! He would occasionally return to some bipartisan actions, such as his support for comprehensive immigration reform, but in the end, he almost always put the Republican Party over the nation’s needs. When he could have really stood up against Donald Trump, a man who had directly insulted him, he did not. He voted for the judges, voted for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, voted for almost the entire Trump/Ryan/McConnell policy agenda.
Overall, the man had very few principles that trumped his extreme partisanship. Take for example his position on Supreme Court justices. For much of his career, he voted for whoever a president nominated, whether it was Robert Bork or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If you believe a president has the right to name whoever they want to the Court, then live by it. OK. But at the end, when control over the Court was in the balance and Mitch McConnell was willing to destroy two centuries of norms in order to advance his radical right-wing agenda, McCain completely changed course! First, he voted against Sonia Sotomayor. Then there was no way he would vote on Merrick Garland. And after he helped McConnell prevent Obama from filling that sea, he stated that Republicans would block all Supreme Court nominations Hillary Clinton would have made, saying “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.” Now that’s some independent bipartisan leadership! And look, I am more than happy to give McCain a bit of credit for voting against the repeal of the ACA in 2017. He certainly doesn’t deserve more credit than anyone else who voted against the bill, but fine. Good for you. For once you were no less terrible than the worst Democrat in the Senate.
On very rare occasions, particularly in the 2008-10 period, reporters would realize how awful McCain actually was, write a column claiming they were reconsidering the man, and then go back to lauding him soon after. Even before he died, McCain became the object by which reporters could pursue their wet dreams in obituaries. Dana Milbank’s may be the most sycophantic, but this exchange between Bret Stephens and Gail Collins really isn’t any better. CNN decided it was time to publish articles by Asian-Americans forgiving McCain for his grotesque racism; after all, what is the feelings of marginalization due to racial discrimination compared to the veneration of War Hero Maverick McCain?
Who will our lovely media turn their desperate attention to now? Is Michael Bloomberg the only man who can save us? Is Lindsey Graham the Republican Daddy we need? A generation of Meet the Press appearances demands to know!