It is difficult to encapsulate a political legacy without sliding into enraged hyperbole or saccharine fawning. With John McCain, it is even harder.
That’s because we’re not in Kansas anymore, politically speaking: in the surreal presidential landscape we’ve found ourselves in, it seems almost quaint to refer to McCain as a dinosaur or a right-wing reactionary, or to say that his cruel streak could sometimes be shocking. After all, he called his wife a “c***” on the campaign trail only once (reportedly reacting to being gently teased about his thinning hair); he only joked about the teenage Chelsea Clinton being the “ugly” love child of Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno. It’s not like he said he could grab any woman “by the pussy” because he was famous; it’s not like he dismissed Mexicans as “rapists”. So what’s the problem?
The very fact that a sitting US president made such shocking remarks, however, shouldn’t blind us to the fact that McCain had some very serious flaws. His Chelsea/Hillary Clinton barb continues a long tradition of dismissing women in politics because of their perceived bad looks. (Remember the “plain facts and plain faces” propaganda against women’s votes during the Suffragette movement, and the depictions of them as ugly harridans who wanted to participate in democracy because they couldn’t get husbands?) Needless to say, the memory of McCain’s mean jibe very probably underpins the reason Chelsea Clinton recently defended Barron Trump against media nastiness, tweeting pointedly that he should be “allowed to have the private childhood he deserves”.
Words are just words, but McCain’s voting record where women’s rights are concerned speaks for itself. He voted to restrict abortion and, in 2015, to defund Planned Parenthood if it carried on providing abortions to women with unwanted pregnancies. We know that votes like these can lead to serious consequences: deaths from backstreet abortions, increased levels of poverty, the perpetuation of cycles of social and economic inequality. McCain also voted against the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act in 2014: the bill was an effort to ensure women could access contraception and gynaecological services without being denied healthcare benefits by their providers because of those providers’ “beliefs”. Nor was he prejudiced against women only when it concerned contraception or abortion: he also voted against a bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate against female employees with the same experience being paid less their male counterparts doing exactly the same job.
Does that mean that McCain was a misogynist? He definitely held sexist attitudes: anyone with access to his voting record or a list of some of his more choice jokes about women would be able to glean that. (He once told one about a woman “raped repeatedly and left to die” by a murderous ape waking up and asking, “Where is that marvellous ape?”, a joke so astounding in its layers of misogyny that I find it borderline nonsensical.) There is real irony in the fact that he was given sole credit for the “deciding” vote that blocked the repeal of Obamacare in 2017, when in reality that accolade should belong to two Republican women, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
But therein lies the rub. McCain was also responsible for a number of morally upstanding actions. He came from a long military dynasty, but refused early release from a Vietnamese POW camp ahead of his other colleagues when his captors found out who he was. He conceded to Obama with a long speech that recognised the suffering of African Americans throughout US history and acknowledged the importance of his election for them. He consistently stood against Donald Trump’s anti-immigration, isolationist stance, memorably releasing a statement to the Pakistani American Khan family, whose son was killed in action in Iraq: “Thank you for immigrating to America. We’re a better country because of you.”
But then there’s the racism. “I hate the g**ks,” McCain said in 2000 (yes, the year 2000). “I will hate them as long as I live.” When challenged, he responded that he was referring specifically to the prison guards in Vietnam who tortured him, and “I will continue to refer to them in a language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends”. It’s unclear what happened next: some report that he apologised and said he would never use the term again. Federal prosecutor Shan Wu wrote this year that he had chosen to believe this version of events, and forgave McCain for using the racial slur, even though he had been called the same thing by bullies at school.
“He could have done better,” he wrote, “... but we all should have done better. And we all must do better by calling out wrong when we see it and practicing forgiveness toward ourselves and each other.”
Vietnam was not a noble war. It marked the first time in American history when soldiers were not universally hailed as heroes on their return. Though McCain has been memorialised as a war hero after withstanding five years of torture, it’s hard to argue that his participation in that failed military conquest made the world any better. Some may see him as a “true patriot” for answering his country’s call without hesitation; others will see that specific brand of blind patriotism without interrogation as highly problematic, the mother of wall-building nationalist fervour.
What it means to be “a patriot”, especially in the Republican Party, is complicated. McCain, along with a lot of others in his party, voted not to prohibit the sale of assault weapons and not to limit firearm magazine capacity. He also voted, on numerous occasions, against measures that would have provided financial relief to graduates from poor families struggling with their student loans, sometimes at the same time as voting not to tax the highest-income Americans. All of those feel like twisted interpretations of the American dream at best.
His best moments did seem heroic. He fought to have a report on the American use of torture after 9/11 released because “the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name”. He was able to put his own experience of torture to good use, to recognise its universal immorality and campaign against it rather than to embed bitterness that would have allowed “anything for America”. Many others would have been consumed by the trauma; many would have stopped at the racist epithet and failed to move on.
John McCain did move on; he often corrected himself, apologised directly or expressed remorse for things he did wrong. The Keating Five corruption scandal, which he referred to as his “asterisk”, he reflected later had been exacerbated by his own “ridiculously immature behaviour” and an inability to be “more civil and understanding or just more of a professional” during interviews. In 1993, he urged Bill Clinton to lift US trade sanctions against Vietnam and sponsored a resolution to lift the Vietnamese embargo, which was just the beginning of his efforts to normalise relations between the countries post-war. His willingness to find common ground across party lines meant that he was resented by some Republicans, who called him a “Rino” (Republican in name only). And he did not want Donald Trump at his funeral.
In other words, he wasn’t an evil man. But he wasn’t a truly great man either. I don’t kid myself that McCain would have stood up for my rights as a woman; I know that he would not. Yes, there is much to admire in the way in which he conducted himself. He was flawed, right-wing, anti-women’s rights, personally principled, often well-meaning, sometimes prejudiced, diplomatic, thoughtful, hot-headed – and he probably wouldn’t have attracted so many plaudits if he hadn’t died in the age of Donald Trump.
It is possible to be all of those things at once. Claiming that he was an evil-hearted xenophobe is just as dishonest as immortalising him as a “true American hero”.
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