Anyone possessed of the merest shred of decency wanted to upchuck from the very first moment of Trump’s bid for the Presidency, when he rode down his gilded escalator, trophy wife in the van, as if imagining himself the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, and proceeded to give a speech in front of a “crowd” padded by paid extras that denounced Hispanics for being rapists and murderers, thus setting the tone for the rest of the campaign, and indeed, his whole lamentable stint as President.
That was one thing. But when he attacked John McCain’s military record, stating “he was a hero because he got captured – I like guys who weren’t captured, OK?”, I was enraged enough to bite the head off a Pomeranian. My sainted mother used to cite such moments as evidence there could be no God – if there were, surely the speaker would have been immediately incinerated by lightning, yes? Instead, Trump gamboled to victory, living through that and many more infamous gaffes that should have killed his candidacy, of which “Pussygate” was merely the most colourful.
McCain, of course, was only in a position to be un-heroically captured because he’d been serving his country as a naval aviator, back in the Sixties, while Trump was bravely figuring out ways to dodge military service. We should pause for a moment on that detail: McCain was a naval aviator. Naval aviators are a special breed. They have to be catapulted from, and then land back upon, aircraft carriers, including at night, a feat so difficult that I’m convinced it’s the most challenging physical task human beings have ever performed on a routine basis. In between, he flew his little A-4 Skyhawk into the teeth of what were then the thickest anti-aircraft defences ever assembled, thicker than those that guarded Berlin in WW II, and on a raid against the Hanoi thermal plant he had his mount shot out from under him by a surface-to-air missile the size of a telephone pole.
Grievously injured by the ejection process, which broke one leg and both his arms, he was hauled from the lake where he landed, and thrown in a dark room to die, having been denied medical treatment. His status as the son of a serving Admiral saved him; the North Vietnamese figured he’d make a pretty good propaganda tool and bargaining chip. When he refused, however, to denounce his country publicly, they beat him to within an inch of his life, re-breaking those barely mended arms, and inflicted enough other tortures that eventually, he signed a phony confession of his war crimes, an act for which he was eternally, and wrongly, ashamed. Later, he refused the faux-humanitarian offer to be released ahead of his fellow POWs, denying his captors a chance for another propaganda victory – it was against the Navy’s Code of Honour to accept freedom ahead of anyone who’d been captured before you. Through over five years of confinement and abuse in the grim, hellish facility referred to with the black humour of US aviation circles as the “Hanoi Hilton”, he comported himself with such strength and dignity that upon his death over the weekend the former warden felt compelled to pen a tribute to his one time prisoner.
All the while, Trump was back in New York enjoying his multiple bogus medical draft deferrals, and learning how to do all the dirty little things he does under the tutelage of his corrupt racist father, and his dad’s thuggish consigliere, former Joseph McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn.
Had I been within arm’s length at the moment Trump opened his filthy mouth to spout his obscenity about preferring guys who didn’t get captured, I’d have felt a diabolical urge to physically attack the narcissistic idiot in defence of McCain’s honour. I’m still inclined to feel that somebody should have, if God wasn’t going to strike him down. For his part, McCain, who had been so injured by his ordeal that he never regained the ability to raise his arms above his head, kept his peace. I don’t know how he did it.
That was just like him, though, wasn’t it? Whatever you felt about McCain, there was no denying his honour, decency and integrity, and he never ran against a political opponent who didn’t end up admiring him and, usually, liking him a great deal. He had a reputation for voting his conscience, sometimes siding with the Democrats, and this earned him the not really apt description as a “maverick”. In Republican circles, anyone who splits from any absurd aspect of the Party Line, however rarely, is a “maverick”.
Actually, McCain was a pretty straightforward right-winger who generally voted in support of the typical Republican nonsense, and this is why, today, I feel a little bit conflicted about the man, listening to all the rapturous eulogies flooding the media. Through most of my time observing politics, I found McCain maddeningly inconsistent and always, it seemed, apt to let me down right when the cause of common sense and decency required his voice the most.
He never met a war he didn’t like, and fell hook, line and sinker for the Bush/Rumsfeld pack of lies that got his country into the quagmire in Iraq, a failing which was only partly redeemed by the success of the famous “surge” which McCain forcefully promoted, and which briefly restored some order to the country after it started to fall to pieces. He definitely would have voted in favour of war with North Korea, and was on the record advocating regime change via application of military force all over the world. Had McCain had his way, the United States would be stuck in even more military tar pits than the many in which it now finds itself, hard as that is to imagine.
He voted against tax cuts for the wealthy under Bush, but then voted to preserve them. He voted for the latest Trump/Ryan abomination of a tax bill. He voted in favour of the crucial bail-out that saved the world from a global economic extinction event in 2008, but later renounced it, trying to distance himself from anything that looked like agreement with Obama. He voted against the bail-out of the auto industry, an unequivocal success, purely on ideological grounds. He opposed most gun control measures, and generally collaborated in the Republican obeisance to the NRA. Having once refused to sign a pledge entered into by most Republicans with rabid anti-tax activist Grover Norquist – a written pact with a private special interest group to never, ever raise taxes, irrespective of the circumstances, a pledge that I insist amounts to an unconstitutional fettering of discretion and a dereliction of the duty to govern in the public interest – he later bowed to expedience and signed on. He did far too little to oppose Mitch McConnell’s program of meat-headed obstruction to the Obama Presidency, voted against Obama’s liberal appointments to the Supreme Court, and, by inaction, tacitly approved McConnell’s horrendously unconstitutional refusal to permit Obama to appoint Merrick Garland to the bench.
Worst of all, maybe even worse, in my view, than anything anyone prior to Trump ever did to debase democracy and imperil the American political system, he gave us Sarah Palin, cannily referred to by Samantha Bee as “Trump 1.0”. True, by conventional criteria there were far greater sins committed by Republicans over the years, from Nixon’s criminal shenanigans, to Reagan’s breathtakingly illegal Iran-Contra caper, to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et.al. lying in order to get America into a horribly misguided war, an act to my mind tantamount to treason. Compared to all of that, what opprobrium should we attach to the mere selection of a lousy running mate?
Yet with Palin, he introduced a previously unknown strain of cancer cell to the American body politic. Prior to that blithering idiot’s arrival on the scene, nobody would have believed that a candidate so obviously racist, so stupid, so full of folksy horse shit right wing slogans and so, so patently unfit for the role, could have been put anywhere near a Presidency, let alone become wildly popular in the process. I’m quite sure that had McCain understood what she really was, he would never have added her to the ticket, and he was visibly horrified by the cretinous nationalist hornet’s nest she stirred up on the campaign trail. Maybe he would have dealt with her, if it had been politically possible. But it wasn’t, and the damage was done. Political operatives throughout the American right realized there was a new formula for success, and that no one, however vile, need ever again be viewed as too witless, too incompetent, or too morally bankrupt to run for any office. There was a large and almost deranged segment of the American id out there to be stroked, flattered, and galvanized. It had eaten Palin’s toxic stew with a spoon, and now it wanted more. You could win by feeding it, scruples be damned.
Thus, very shortly, we got Trump. It’s grossly unfair to lay this entirely on McCain’s doorstep, I suppose, but God, John, look what you did.
All his life, he fought the political wars like a gentlemen. When he lost, he still praised the democratic process. He sought never to vilify his opponents simply for being his opponents. He clearly didn’t like the far right wing of his party, referring to the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as “wack-a-doos”. Often, he was clear-eyed enough to see that when something was worthy, it was worthy no matter who proposed it, and he’d find any ally on either side of the aisle to get it done. He championed, God bless him, intelligent immigration reform, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, teaming up with Ted Kennedy in the effort. He fought hard for campaign finance reform, allying himself with Democrat Diane Feinstein to get a bill through Congress. He was unfailingly generous of his time with reporters, and a mentor to newcomers in the Senate, whether of his party or not, including Hillary Clinton, with whom he developed an easy rapport, and who’s been all over the airwaves praising him over the past few days. He successfully led an effort to normalize relations with Vietnam, professing no hard feelings against his former tormentors – after all, he’d been dropping bombs on their city when they shot him down, right? He was steadfast in his opposition to the torture carried out by Bush’s intelligence services after 9/11, being unequivocal that the Justice Department’s legal opinion holding that waterboarding was not “torture” was not merely disastrously wrong, but evil.
Moreover, when he marched on to the Senate floor last year, and with one gesture of his battered arm voted thumbs down on Mitch McConnell’s despicable Obamacare repeal, putting an end to the effort to kick 28 million citizens off their health care so as to give the filthy rich yet another tax break, I’m sure there were many, like me, who almost wept with joy. It was a characteristically principled stand McCain took: he didn’t support Obamacare in the slightest, but he couldn’t abide the secretive, undemocratic means by which McConnell had attempted to shove his ill-considered bill through the Senate. In the run-up to the vote he gave speeches pleading for a return to normal democratic processes, the “regular order” of committee review and bipartisan input on important legislation, and in the crunch he did what was right. For that alone, one was tempted to lobby for his beatification.
It’s therefore possible, even inevitable, to be disappointed in John McCain, but impossible, really, to feel anything but admiration – and deep, genuine affection – for the man. Still, while he opposed Trump in word and deed over the past two years, I can’t help but wish he’d done more. He could have broken with the Republicans and sat as an independent, or even started his own party. As the champion of a new movement promoting traditional conservatism he could have raised a banner to which many would have flocked. Savvy “Never Trump” Republican strategists and operatives like Nicolle Wallace, Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson would have expended every energy, bent every sinew, to support him. Opinion leaders in the old guard conservative commentariat, like George Will and Joe Scarborough, would have championed his cause at the top of their lungs. The likes of George Soros and Tom Steyer might well have written big, fat cheques as enthusiastically as the Koch brothers. At a stage in his political life when he had nothing left to prove, and nothing much to lose, he could have ended his run with the bravest, most righteous act of his career as a legislator. This would have been a great deal, a very great deal, to ask of any dedicated, lifelong Republican, yet perhaps, one can’t help but imagine, not too much to ask of the hero of the Hanoi Hilton.
He must have felt he could do more to right the ship by staying in the party. I don’t agree, but when you get right down to it, who am I, and what right does somebody like me even have, to second guess such a man?
I’m left asking myself whether it’s possible, in the Trump era, to both be a good person and remain with the party The Donald conquered and molded into his own image. I honestly don’t know. I am, however, unshakeable in believing that if McCain’s way of doing things had captured the Republican imagination, so much would be better today, and while I’m not sorry he lost his fight with Barack Obama, I do regret that his last chance to lead had to come when he was faced with so worthy an adversary. Imagine, if you can bear it, if McCain could have been born at a time that left him young enough to run again in 2016, and now sat behind the Resolute Desk instead of Trump.
Like two other fine Republicans, Howard Baker and Bob Dole, McCain was among the greatest GOP Presidents America never had. We will miss him now. We will miss his style of politics, his dignity, his fair-mindedness, his decency, and his dedication to principle over adherence to dogma. It says everything about the man’s character that as he lay dying, he dictated that when he gets laid to rest, the two men who defeated him, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, should give his eulogies, and that both of those men will be deeply, sorrowfully honoured to do so.