Monday, August 27, 2018

R.I.P. Senate’s Maverick

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s.”
—John McCain
As with John B. Anderson, the onetime congressman and presidential candidate who died in December, I feel compelled to eulogize Arizona Senator John McCain. In a way, though, I already have. It was in a blog post on my movie web site a decade ago, just after he was defeated by Barack Obama by a landslide in the Electoral College.

“During the Vietnam war,” I wrote, “while [George W.] Bush was ensconced in the relative safety of the Texas National Guard (and Obama was a child), McCain was risking his life and undergoing torture in the service of his country.” This was in reaction to people I had heard during the campaign repeating the mantra that there was no difference between McCain and Bush.

I continued, “While Bush was always eager to get along with his political colleagues and run up huge spending deficits, McCain was always quick to annoy and anger his fellow Republicans with (sometimes overly) principled stands. While Bush was willing to tolerate rough treatment of terrorists in U.S. custody McCain, drawing on painful personal experience, opposed anything that fit his definition of torture. While Bush saw no problem cutting taxes and increasing spending, McCain greatly annoyed the president and many of his colleagues by voting against the Bush tax cuts because there were not offsetting spending cuts. While Bush gave lip service to the issue of global warming but did not treat it as a particularly urgent problem, McCain embraced the issue. Indeed, McCain’s positions are such a strange jumble that there is something in them to annoy just about everyone.”

McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and to the Senate in 1987, succeeding Barry Goldwater. McCain was never going to be president, although he did make a good run for the office in both 2000 and 2008. A main obstacle was his eclectic set of political positions and personal principles. They made it too hard to enthuse voters in his own party. Of course, a strange or inconsistent set of principles did not stop Donald Trump from getting elected, so the determinative factor certainly had more to do with McCain’s campaign style. He was literally too nice to be president. Look at Trump’s over-the-top attacks on his opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton, and compare that to the town meeting where McCain praised his opponent and admonished a questioner for suggesting that Obama was “an Arab.” Imagine what Trump would have done with the provocative sermons of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright. On principle McCain refused to use Wright as a talking point, despite the urging of fellow Republicans at the time, many of whom now turn their noses up at Trump’s unseemliness. Meanwhile, someone planted a story about McCain’s supposed affair with a lobbyist, which got great play in The New York Times until it became overwhelmingly obvious the story was a fabrication.

Apart from his own deficit in cutthroat political technique, McCain’s weaknesses also included little appetite for fund raising during the primaries, an inability to tap into the country’s mood over the financial crisis and, perhaps most definitively, his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

There is probably no better example of McCain being too principled to be president than his campaign finance legislation. This was an area to which he was deeply and personally committed, and the result bore his name. The McCain-Feingold Act limited how much could be spent on campaigns. Thus it was no surprise that, in his run for president, McCain chose to take the limited public funding provided by the law. Obama, on the other hand, who had pledged to do the same, instead forwent public funding because he was able to raise so much more money without the limits and thus vastly outspent McCain. The eventual irony was that, eight years later, the law’s entire raison d’être was called into question when Trump defeated Clinton even though she vastly outspent him—even if you count all known Russian expenditures on social media sites. This, of course, is why we have heard nothing more about campaign finance reform for the past couple of years. The law still bedevils Trump, though, as prosecutors use it to try to make a case against him spending his own money to buy two women’s silence.

As tributes to McCain now pour in, Democrats and the media praise him for his penchant for bi-partisan initiatives, although many in his own party did not appreciate them. His final act of annoyance for them was casting the deciding vote against his party’s so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, thereby keeping the law, technically at least, still on the books. This despite years of promises to repeal Obamacare.

Despite his principles and willingness to reach across the aisle, his career was not without its blemishes. He was one of the Keating Five caught up in a scandal emerging from the 1980s savings & loan crisis, though he ultimately emerged unscathed. After the 2008 election, he candidly admitted to taking no position on the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s statehouse, hoping for more votes in that state’s primary. He clearly regretted his political expediency and was even able to laugh about it, noting, “And I lost anyway.” The fact that he could even admit this was nothing less than refreshing.

That ability to laugh at himself and not take himself too seriously was the most appealing thing about the man. Apparently, behind the scenes he could have a terrible temper, but in public he had a wonderful sense of humor. After the 2008 loss, when asked how he was doing by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, he quipped, “Well, I’ve been sleeping like a baby. I sleep two hours, wake up, and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up, and cry.” I do not think I ever saw him interviewed when he did not make me smile and like him.

He was in a different category than any other politician. As a veteran, he was even in a different category than war heroes such as John F. Kenney and George H.W. Bush. The injuries he received from ejecting from his plane, his capture, prison beatings and repeated torture, as well as more than five years of captivity entitled him to more deference than most people will earn in a lifetime. The fact that he refused an offer of early release unless it did include the rest of his men just made him the kind of human being we all wish we were but probably are not.

John McCain was never going to be president. One cannot help but at least wonder, however, if the country would have been better off if he had been.