When considering the case of John McCain, I have often recalled an old rule from William Hazlitt, a partisan of the radical movements in the age of revolution: “It has always been with me, a test of the sense and candor of anyone belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
McCain is as close to a great man as his generation produced. Over the years, however, recognizing that fact has presented as much of a challenge to those within his party as it has to those in the opposite party. If this weren’t so, a man who famously contested McCain’s status as a war hero on the despicable grounds that he was captured in combat would never have become the standard-bearer of the Republican party.
While the center of gravity of today’s Republican party has shifted to the South, McCain never claimed any association more insular than being an American, which stands to reason given that he was born in the Panama Canal Zone into a tradition of military service. His grandfather and father, John Sidney McCain Sr. and Jr., respectively, served with distinction in the United States Navy, one as a naval aviator and the other as a submariner, each rising to the rank of admiral. In his affecting family memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain tells of their last meeting aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, in Tokyo Bay a few hours after the Second World War had ended. Decades later, near the end of his life, McCain’s father recalled those precious final moments together: “My father said to me, ‘Son, there is no greater thing than to die for the principles — for the country and the principles that you believe in.’”
Even before this message was passed on to McCain, he had rendered imperishable service on its behalf. On October 26, 1967, McCain was engaged in his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam. Within seconds of releasing its bombs on Hanoi, McCain’s A-4 aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile that brought it spiraling to earth at over 500 miles an hour. After ejecting, McCain plunged into Truc Bach Lake in the heart of the enemy’s capital. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was taken to the infamous prison Hoa Lo, which American POWs had named “the Hanoi Hilton,” where his mangled body would remain under duress for more than five years.
During this period of deprivation and torture, when he was regularly entreated by the enemy to betray his country, McCain’s father’s and grandfather’s notions of character — “our honor was an extension of a great nation’s honor” — obliged him to resist. Within a year, the Vietnamese presented him the chance to go home, out of turn, and McCain earnestly weighed the offer. His poor health put his survival in prison in some doubt, but his premature release would violate the military’s Code of Conduct. Unbeknownst to McCain, his father would shortly assume command of the war effort as commander-in-chief, Pacific. His captors hoped that McCain could be cajoled into accepting special treatment in order to humiliate the new enemy commander. But he declined, knowing that his own self-respect and his country’s honor demanded it, thus denying the Vietnamese a propaganda coup.
All of which is to say that McCain has many claims to greatness. But almost as remarkable as McCain’s heroic service to the nation is that this crucible turned him out an inveterate internationalist. He would have been forgiven if he had emerged a hard-bitten cynic about his country’s power, but instead he was convinced the cause of freedom depended on it. Thus, for McCain, an abiding concern for America’s exceptional place in history was consecrated in the bowels of a Vietnamese prison.
This conviction in American global leadership is rooted in a belief that America’s own interests are inextricably bound with the interests of humanity. Once again, it must be said that McCain’s distinctly American internationalism, so clearly divorced from the cosmopolitan Left, has not been immune to significant opposition from the “America First” Right.
In the 1990s, the narrow nationalism that animated a majority of Republicans led them to decry the Clinton administration’s “humanitarian” missions abroad as “international social work” (as Michael Mandelbaum famously dubbed it). Although McCain was not by any means an admirer of Clinton’s stewardship of American power, the palpable conservative yearning for “normalcy” after the exertions of the Cold War did not sit comfortably with him.
With the exception of a short-lived stint after September 11, modern Republicans have frequently been heedless of the duties that have devolved upon America as the world’s only superpower and the leader of the free world. McCain never has. To wit, he has long been the Republicans’ best hope of securing their reputation as the party of national defense and national greatness.
In the age of Trump, when the place of national interests dominates the debate over foreign policy, it is helpful to remember, as Robert Cooper has argued, “the real question is how those interests are defined.” Not infrequently has McCain’s conception of the national interest, including considerations of national honor, incurred the derision of both parties. Two examples will suffice.
McCain had advocated the Iraq “surge” since early in the war and he stood by it in 2008 when it was belatedly implemented amid a torrent of abuse and treachery. During the presidential campaign of that year, McCain nicely rephrased Henry Clay’s adage (“I would rather be right than president”) when he said that he would rather lose an election than lose a war. To assist the nascent democratic government in Iraq — and to prevent a gang of Islamic fanatics from inflicting a battlefield defeat on the United States — he was prepared to keep American forces in place for as long as necessary. When pressed on this point, McCain freely confessed that he would approve of a hundred-year deployment along the lines of the largely pacific post-war occupations of Japan and Korea — to general opprobrium. Democrats, ready and willing to lose a war if it meant winning the White House, ran the clip ad nauseam for the remainder of the campaign.
McCain believes that a nation conceived in liberty has no right to withhold its heart — or, when possible, its muscle.
Another instance of McCain’s enlarged sense of American interests has come in his advocacy on behalf of the beleaguered Syrian people. Since democratic protests broke out across the country in March 2011, McCain has consistently held the Assad regime to account for its brutal repression of its captive population. Unwilling to abide the sight of American abstention, he personally undertook to travel and meet with the Free Syrian Army struggling at once against its own vicious government and the holy warriors of ISIS.
This forms an admirable example of McCain’s cosmopolitan patriotism. He is what “America Firsters” — America’s equivalent of “Little Englanders” — have always hated most: an American who believes his country is not just (to borrow from Burke) “a thing of mere physical locality,” but an idea, and a universally accessible one, at that. He believes that a nation conceived in liberty has no right to withhold its heart — or, when possible, its muscle — whenever democratic movements put up a resistance to tyranny and oppression.
McCain is not without fault. He is often hot-headed and shallow in his political acumen, as befits a man who was never quite a principled partisan but rather a practitioner of what Yuval Levin has called “his own special brand of honor politics.”
Yet nothing can diminish the sublime fact that from the blackened skies of Vietnam to the burning grounds of Syria, McCain has placed himself on the altar of his country. As Pericles said during the Peloponnesian War, “there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since . . . his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.”
McCain has proved his merit as a citizen many times over. Beyond his steadfastness in his country’s battles, he grasps America’s proper role in the world better than anyone else in the governing class. It is nothing short of tragic that as his deteriorating health forces his absence — let’s hope only temporarily — from the arena, the United States is patently losing its grip on global leadership. It is surely too much to say that McCain’s recovery will be America’s. But it is hard to envision America’s recovery without McCain’s.