John McCain Was Not An Anecdote

The template for a John McCain remembrance is as follows: “We might not have always agreed on this or that policy, but McCain was a patriot, a war hero, etc. Now here’s a personal anecdote which shows how selfless and playfully mischievous he was.”

Like everyone and their grandmother, I too have a personal anecdote involving McCain, but I recount it here not to illustrate his courage, candor, or friendliness, but instead to illustrate the futility of McCain anecdotes. Even our brief interaction was enough for me to understand his skill at captivating political journalists, whom he’d long half-jokingly referred to as his “base.” And because so many in contemporary journalism are in fact captivated by the mystique of their political betters (it’s often why they bother entering the profession in the first place) it was perfectly easy to understand why they invariably fell for his charms, and why they’re now proffering obituaries which focus overwhelmingly on the man’s appealing personal qualities. This is a gross distortion.

I was in New Hampshire in the summer of 2015 covering the early stages of the upcoming presidential campaign. This is arguably the best time to cover presidential campaigns, because candidates show up to ordinary citizens’ homes for horderves and smallchat, and are generally accessible to even uncredentialed media. McCain was appearing at a house party on behalf of his “amigo” Lindsey Graham, whose campaign was laughably ill-fated from the start but nevertheless provided McCain an excuse to return to his spiritual homeland of New Hampshire. So I attended the event. McCain overrode his flustered press aide, who was not thrilled with my presence, and agreed to speak with me. I was basically a nobody, but within seconds he was confiding to me what seemed like dark secrets, delivered with a combination of earnestness and crotchetiness that couldn’t be anything but endearing.

“I promise you, there will be a scandal,” McCain told me in hushed tones, prophesying that “foreign money” would corrupt the presidential race in both parties. Campaign finance reform, once his signature domestic issue (pre-9/11) still seemed to really rile him up. “You know where you can lay the blame?” McCain railed, “Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. OK?” He recalled watching the Citizens United oral arguments in 2009 with dismay. “The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court decided to play politician,” he growled derisively. (McCain voted to confirm Roberts in 2005, but who needs details.)

Whether he was right about the theoretical foreign money scandal (Russia? Clinton Foundation?), or Roberts’ culpability, or campaign finance reform more generally is a matter for debate. The point was, he fumed privately about these things to me, a slightly sketchy reporter he’d just met, and the feeling was pretty close to exhilarating. This was one of the most prominent people in American political life for decades, and it seemed like at the drop of a hat he’d not only make you his friend, but tell you secrets. With a wink, he said we could have further discussions sometime in Washington.

So that was the allure. I didn’t need three months on a bus with him to understand it, or daily bantering encounters in a Senate hallway. I could see how, in that moment, a certain kind of journalist could become enraptured with McCain the person and forget about McCain the political figure. I never followed through on the offer to have further discussions in Washington, in part because the “secrets” he was divulging, while they seemed at the time potentially explosive, were really just standard McCain bonhomie. His vague hunch about “foreign money” wasn’t some major revelation, nor was it a particularly salient impetus for further reporting. It was the same kind of red meat he’d dangled in front of journalists for years, and which generated in them a reverential admiration, because unlike many other prominent political figures he was eager to engage in back-slapping chatter. This was doubly enticing because his ire was so frequently directed at fellow Republicans, and there’s nothing media love more than intra-Republican battles. McCain was always glad to supply the ammunition.

Reporters who generally disliked McCain politically now admit that they’re conflicted about his legacy, and unexpectedly felt profoundly sad at his death. Even a passing interaction with him can give insight into why this might be so. My 15 minute conversation felt unusually intimate and revelatory. But how intimate and revelatory could it have really been? Could it be that his ability to project intimacy and revelatoriness was his real political skill, one that enthralled him to so many reporters, even reporters who were self-consciously aware of McCain’s ability to do exactly this?

What’s amazing about McCain’s media appeal is how enduring it proved to be. After the 2000 primary campaign he lost to George W. Bush, when he became such an unparalleled media darling, there was at least some self-criticism afterwards about journalists’ willingness to buy into the mythology he created for himself — the “Straight Talk Express,” etc. But then during the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, the press he had so assiduously courted turned comprehensively against him, and the “myth of the maverick” was supposed to have been shattered. He was depicted as a lackey for Bush. His pick of Sarah Palin was the final straw; no longer could the press countenance such a grave affront to common decency.

But then came Trump, and McCain once again remade himself in a new image, to journalists’ everlasting delight. He returned to his natural role of GOP foil, and became more beloved than ever; the elder, ailing statesman summoning his last breath to denounce the sitting president of his own party. One last time, he leveraged the strength of his personality to make everyone forget the political program he was advocating, which, as usual, was hawkishness to the most devastating extreme. (See: Syria, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Russia, Ukraine, etc. etc. etc.)

He also appeared, for the most part, to really believe what he said, and that too has a certain charm. Speaking to him, you could intuitively sense it. But when every TV booker in the country presumably had the same intuition (McCain was famously the most-booked guest in history on Meet The Press) you know there had to be something superficial about this attraction. Even if his earnestness was rooted in something fundamentally noble, perhaps stemming from genuine insights into the human condition he gleaned while in captivity, he still ultimately used these traits to promote political initiatives that were, on the whole, absolutely disastrous. A large percentage of those fabled Meet the Press appearances involved him stridently defending the Iraq War, as the country’s most unrepentant hawk other than perhaps Dick Cheney himself. Only just this year, on his deathbed, did McCain reluctantly admit that the war was a “mistake.” That’s a monumentally grievous moral failing, which no amount of anti-Trump heckling or wholesome anecdotes could ever forgive.

The challenge in reckoning with McCain has always been that while he may possess certain admirable qualities — a compelling personality, a genuine forthrightness about him, a sincere appreciation for the free press — these things ultimately don’t matter in the slightest. He’s not our national uncle. What mattered was his signature political contribution, the one he was so frank and resolute about until the very end: unwavering commitment to a program of hyper-militaristic excess which has wrought incalculable destruction.

He was never ambiguous about it. McCain’s one abiding principle, one unalterable belief, was in the deployment of aggressive American military force, everywhere and always. The results speak for themselves. And that is the legacy on which he must be judged. Not whether he was nice to reporters, or could tell a good joke, or made time for me at a New Hampshire house party.

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