What Do We Owe a Dead Man? The Politicization of John McCain's Death

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What Do We Owe a Dead Man? The Politicization of John McCain's Death

Senator John McCain died last Saturday of brain cancer. He was 81. McCain, who represented Arizona in the House and Senate since 1982, announced he was gravely sick last summer, so the world had been prepared for his eventual passing for more than a year. We’ve been memorializing him for just as long, in a bizarre, detached, dead-man-walking sort of way made possible through the miracle of politics.

But what do we owe a dead man? McCain, an outspoken senior Senator—sometimes aggressively so—and two-time presidential candidate, inserted himself in the middle of American politics and policy, and over the last two decades became an increasingly significant voice. His death is no doubt a political event—thanks in part to his own ambition and relentless branding—and we have to forgive the politicization of these memorials. We can’t separate the man from the moment. Certainly not in this moment. Those who knew him well probably can, but I wonder even about that.

Despite all these months to think and talk about his life, though, there are basically only two McCain obituaries: Fawning Apotheosis, and Contrarian Reaction to Fawning Apotheosis. But we can use these two types of memorial to coordinate an insightful understanding of McCain’s life and what his death means to America. Our reactions to these McCain obits (beyond the reactions to his death) also say a lot about what the country he loved so much looked like the day he left it. Bottom line: McCain sucked—a lot—but right now America sucks a whole lot more. Until his “friends” step up and rid our leadership of Trumpism, their ostentatious, overwrought, self-satisfied obits about the selfless patriotism of Senator John McCain should make us all ill.

Fawning Apotheosis

Here’s how these remembrances generally go:

John McCain was a war hero and a patriot of the highest order. His service to the country was indefatigable in its courage and determination. A maverick who never shied from the truth as he saw it, McCain was one of the last Lions of the Senate. Though others disagreed with him, and often vociferously so, we were united in our devotion to the higher callings of service and duty to our country. In fact, McCain’s honor was such that he would be the first person to tell you he was wrong etc etc.

By far it’s the most common. And if we’re being honest, not without reason: Senator McCain carried himself with conviction, and in the Trump era he spoke with a consistently critical conservative voice too rare in D.C., advocating for decency and order in a time where neither are in supply. And it’s also true (though not true at all times) that McCain wasn’t afraid of stepping outside partisan lines: He really did reach across the aisle, most famously in the bill that bears his name, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, passed in 2002. Years later the Supreme Court struck parts of that bill in its odious Citizens United decision (thanks to judges that McCain’s votes helped confirm). And the uniformly respectful outpouring from his Senate colleagues should say enough: He was respected. (Some of those same people are among the least respected in the country.)

So yeah, there’s a lot to praise about McCain, especially if you excel at compartmentalizing stuff you like from inconvenient contradictory stuff. And in a time when we’re confronted hourly with our government officials’ sickening behavior at every level of significance, there’s emotional and dare I say civic value in being able to retreat into a myth (which McCain conveniently inoculated by confessing time and again he was, without ever really getting into specifics, a flawed person) about a lost America that we’d do well to try to resurrect. We, as a whole, seem to really need to believe in this man, and it’s no surprise Americans want to embrace uncritically the story of a guy who (in spite of his flaws, remember!) demonstrated unfailingly patriotic independence and honor etc etc. In fact, McCain’s death gives the story a new sense of permanence, of completeness.

These memorials often also spotlight what might become McCain’s defining moment, when at a 2008 campaign rally in Minnesota a woman in the audience told McCain she was worried about the fact that his opponent, Barack Obama, was an Arab. McCain took the microphone from her before she could finish whatever horrific thoughts that in her batty skull there gestated, and he defended Obama’s character to the room.

Eight years later, though, that woman won. Why? Well, in part because of McCain’s failures. Which brings us to:

Contrarian Reaction to Fawning Apotheosis

Here’s a single tweet that captures this version:


McCain sucked. Often. Death isn’t some kind of PR disinfectant. If we’re going to remember the man, remember him as fully as honesty permits. Perhaps McCain would want to read it. He told Anderson Cooper last year he wanted to be remembered as a man who “served his country and was not always right. Made a lot of mistakes. Made a lot of errors, but served his country. And I hope we could add honorably.”

So let’s take him at his word. Because about those errors…

First, in spite of McCain’s heroic “maverick” image—which the press loved, but which his own aide conceived and crafted—McCain was frequently a political poltroon. According to FiveThirtyEight, from 1987 to 2015 McCain voted with the GOP 87 percent of the time, which isn’t much of a deviation from the statistical average of 91 percent. McCain was, of course, the exceptionally strange GOP politician who advocated for fighting climate change, but here we see how his spine was controlled by his ego: When he was gearing up for his presidential run in 2008 he also said intelligent design should be taught next to evolution.

McCain also broke ranks when the GOP went hard to the right on immigration, and, a victim of unthinkable torture as a POW in Vietnam—torture that broke his body for the rest of his life—McCain bucked anything that smelled of “enhanced interrogation.” Fast-forward those issues ten years, though, and look where we are: The GOP shuffles along under the whip of a sophomoric psychopath who rips families apart and thinks we should torture people. Hell, while McCain lay sick in bed a few months ago, the Senate confirmed Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA Director. Haspel was deeply involved with both the CIA torture program and the cover-up.

Which brings me to probably the most overlooked fact about McCain: He wasn’t an effective Senator. His most well-known legislative achievement, McCain-Feingold, got shredded after just a few years in a decision that actually opened the door for the wealthiest Americans to carry out the kind of heinous constitutional abuses his bill was intended to prevent. McCain was unable to get his party to do anything about that decision, just as he was unable to stop the GOP’s descent into madness over the last decade or so. He voted against the Bush tax cuts, citing the Iraq War as one reason to be careful about tinkering with government revenue: “No one can be expected to make an informed decision about fiscal policy at this time. Let us wait until we have succeeded in Iraq.” He also said, “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.”

But the Bush tax cuts passed in spite of his maverick ways. And when the tax cuts came up for renewal in 2006, McCain flipped and voted for them. He also didn’t buck the Trump tax cuts, which also benefit the rich. As for McCain’s initial concern about massive tax cuts: We’re still in Iraq.

Which brings us to his one trademark policy position: Bomb the shit out of people. Though McCain often challenged presidents who seemed too quick to muster troops (Reagan in Lebanon; HW Bush in Iraq; Clinton in Somalia) he more frequently advocated for military interventionism, from Reagan in Central America (McCain got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal), to the Balkans, to North Korea, to Iran, to most famously the Iraq War, which he complained about because Bush didn’t go far enough in the chaos wreaked on that country. McCain wanted to build the U.S. military up to pivot to coming conflicts with China and possibly Russia. He hated the Iran nuclear deal and once sang “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” (Can you imagine Trump doing that? Of course.) He railed against radical Islamism, calling it the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century” and saying in 2008 that “any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House.” (And remember the context here: Climate change actually registered as a threat to McCain.)

But McCain himself seemed a little fuzzy on the specifics there. He once accused Iran of helping Al Qaeda, and was reminded by Senator Joe Lieberman that Iran was helping Shiite extremists, where al Qaeda were Sunni extremists. McCain made the same mistake on the Senate floor not long afterwards, calling al Qaeda a Shiite group. He then said, “Sunni, Shiite, whatever.”

But the most damning aspect of McCain’s political life is the very thing we praise the most about him: His honor. This is by design.

McCain was above all a politician. Everything about him served his ambition. Honor included. He was unfailingly loyal to George W. Bush (tax cuts/flipflop aside), who in a deplorable move in 2000 used images of McCain’s own adopted Bangladeshi daughter to race-bait the Republican base in the South Carolina primary. After McCain’s mid-aughts mavericking further alienated him from that same base, he pandered to their vote in 2008 by choosing the dangerously stupid and unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. And even after enduring the Bush smears—and having his family endure it—McCain went so negative on Obama in the final stretch of the 2008 race that Representative John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement and the guy cited in the tweet at the top of this section, accused McCain of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in a way that reminded Lewis of George Wallace, the Alabama governor who in the 1960s refused to federal orders to integrate his state.

Which brings me back to that “he’s an Arab” comment. McCain didn’t speak up for Arab Americans and make the point that even if Obama were a Muslim, it wouldn’t matter. This is the United States of America, and no religious affiliation robs any of us of the right to be president. Colin Powell did make this point in reaction to McCain.

But we also look over the fact that McCain was complicit in the first place. He would routinely ask crowds at his rallies, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” In reply he’d hear shouts of “Muslim!” and “Terrorist!” Hell, at that same Minnesota rally—before the woman asked about Obama’s ethnicity—the crowd had booed McCain when he tried to talk down another person who said Obama “cohorts with domestic terrorists.” Speakers at McCain campaign events regularly invoked Obama’s middle name “Hussein” to stir up racist, birther fears of a Manchurian Muslim terrorist. McCain knew what was going on, and he propelled it: That was the whole point of bringing Palin on board. McCain’s high-minded nobility act played well to moderates against the base, and Palin, the hope went, could be convincing enough a bigot to pull them out to the polls.

Nothing at this level is by accident. McCain was a great marketer. He had a compelling story that was easy to follow, and everyone could recognize his brand in one word: Maverick. It seems to say a lot, though, that he never was quite good enough a politician to take the presidency.

In fact, McCain’s myopic desperation to win the presidency gave a little daylight to the resentful racists destined to become Trump supporters. McCain, by association, conferred on this venomous lot the first wreaths of legitimacy. He took the mic away, sure: But first he gave it to them.


Probably McCain’s most lasting legacy will be what he’s said and done in reaction to Trump’s election. This was the final fruit of McCain’s decades-long marketing campaign. His honor is beyond reproach, to everyone, it seems, except the president. Unlike our other craven GOP elected officials, McCain consistently and resolutely denounced Trump’s permeating vileness. Sure, McCain was free of the pressure of re-election, but his voice never wavered. His actions didn’t, either: He famously voted down the GOP’s quixotic attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and he also took it on himself to pass a copy of the Steele dossier to the FBI the month after Trump was elected.

Trump, of course—always projecting attacks on the parts of himself he loathes the most—has slandered McCain’s heroism for decades now. Trump covets McCain’s honor, and the respect McCain gets from the respected. Trump never had any of that, and he never will, and the fact that the GOP let this lecherous ghoul pass unchecked through their ranks, all the while insulting the sacrifices and character of the man they today mourn so ornately, says all you need to know about the disgrace that McCain’s party—and his friends still in it—must reckon with.

McCain’s death comes at a pivotal moment, when it seems like every single one of the walls of Trump’s world are falling on him. As it stands, the GOP has forfeited all rights to McCain’s memory, or at least to McCain as they want to remember him. They flatter themselves if they believe their words capable of casting any honor on him, and unless and until they act, this will disgust us:

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Stand up for your dead friend.

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