Home Politics John McCain and the Lost Art of Decency in Politics

John McCain and the Lost Art of Decency in Politics

He loomed as one of the last remaining larger than life figures in American politics, but it’s the small, human moments with John McCain that linger indelibly in memory now.

In his prime, before the compromises of his last presidential campaign shrunk him into a defensive crouch, his preferred method of controlling his image was to abandon all the modern methods of self-presentation, whether conducting a rollicking running seminar aboard his “Straight Talk Express” bus, or ruminating with a solitary journalist on a long flight in a small chartered plane.

“Most current fiction bores the shit out of me,” he once told me somewhere over New England, as I followed him around for weeks of stumping in the 2006 midterm elections that amounted to the beginning of his own 2008 campaign. As I wrote in a 2007 profile of McCain for Vanity Fair, he once allowed, to a gathering of midwestern businessmen, “I want to keep health-care costs down until I get sick, and then I don’t give a goddamn.” To a group of Wisconsin college kids waiting to have their pictures taken with him, he mock-grumbled, “All right, you little jerks!” And on an executive jet high above Iowa, he read aloud a USA Today headline: “Actor [Wesley] Snipes Faces Indictment on Tax Fraud Charges” and muttered: “All our childhood heroes—shattered!”

Show me a politician—any politician, anywhere—who still talks that way in the 21st century, or will ever talk that way again. In that sense, McCain’s death marks the passing not only of a spirited public servant, but the disappearance of a certain brand of decent self-awareness in public life, a recognition that politics isn’t a reality show, or any kind of show, but a real and serious business on which millions of lives and the fates of nations depend. Like his hero Robert Jordan, in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, McCain always believed that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.”

Did McCain often fall short? Yes. He had his craven, infuriating moments. Fending off a conservative primary challenger in his 2010 Senate re-election campaign he, by turns, flip-flopped on overturning the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving openly; abandoned his support of comprehensive immigration reform; chose not to support a legislative fix after the Supreme Court overturned a key element of his signature campaign-finance reform law; and even went so far as to declare that he had never considered himself to be a maverick at all, prompting Jon Stewart to note that he had not only sold his soul, but sold it short.

I myself then wrote somewhat peevishly that it was possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a “ruthless and self-centered survivor,” who had never pursued an overriding philosophy or legislative agenda, but simply lived for the fight. He once told his press secretary Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well. For his part, in the thick of that primary campaign, McCain just said, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.”

When his North Vietnamese captors demanded the names of his flight squadron, McCain recited the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line, knowing that the false information would suffice (for the moment) to end their abuse. “There’s no bar fight he will walk away from,” his onetime political strategist John Weaver once told me.

To the last, it’s that fighting spirit that defines McCain. Nearly alone among his Republican Senate colleagues, he stood up to Donald Trump, depriving the president of a deciding vote on the repeal of Obamacare, and repeatedly rebuking him in no uncertain terms when he felt like it, memorably declaring that the president had “abased himself” in front of Vladimir Putin, a “tyrant.”

In high school, one of McCain’s nicknames was McNasty, and his belligerence did not always endear him to either the Republicans or Democrats with whom he often feuded. But in the end, he out-fought and out-thought and outlasted most of them, and the evident courage with which he has faced his final illness prompted bipartisan expressions of admiration and respect that felt as unforced as his own outspoken pronouncements over the years. In his captivity in Vietnam, McCain endured more pain than most people could ever imagine. His wartime injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders; he could not comb his own hair without help.

Once, as we prepared to get out of a small airplane in Vermont, where McCain would be greeted by the governor, he struggled to put on his suit jacket. I turned away for a moment, only to notice that he was upset. He could sense that his coat collar was all bunched up, and he asked me matter-of-factly to help him straighten it. It was the smallest thing, but I’ll never forget the sudden, sharp, painful impression it made on me as McCain ducked down the stairs: I was standing behind a very big man.

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