Politics & Policy

John McCain: Appreciating America’s ‘Imperfect Servant’

McCain at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., October 2008 (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
On the 50th anniversary of his being shot down over Hanoi

Editor’s Note: We are re-posting this appreciation of John McCain from 2017 to mark his passing.

In early 1982, one of my several housemates at the time informed me that he would be leaving our place in Tempe, Ariz., and moving into a spare room in the home of a newly married couple nearby, the husband a former POW and all-but-announced candidate for Congress. My friend had been hired as the aspiring congressman’s very first full-time political aide. And, as soon as he had settled in, he wanted to introduce his new employer to me and a few others we knew from Arizona State University. Would I like to come by and meet John McCain?

If I’d had any clue then what a noted figure the man would become in political history — allowing me, far into the future, a minor part in his presidential campaign — I would have paid closer attention when the day came and we all sat down to chat in his living room on Lamplighter Street. My memory of the visit is a little sketchy now, although I do recall noticing, back when people still remarked on them, the prematurely white hair and constricted arm movements, both features courtesy of McCain’s captors in North Vietnam.

John and Cindy hadn’t lived in their house very long; moving boxes were still in sight, and the furniture had a fresh-from-the-showroom feel. Representative John Rhodes, the district’s venerable voice in Congress, had a few weeks earlier signaled his retirement, and no piece of Tempe real estate ever moved faster than this place the McCains had just bought, relocating to CD-1 from Phoenix, a 15-minute drive away.

The absurd backstory is that the two or three of us invited there were C. S. Lewis enthusiasts, in a small group at ASU, eight students at most, named for the day of our weekly discussions of the Oxford don’s wisdom — “The Tuesday Club.” Hoping to show he had useful connections, my ex-housemate had apparently been vague about our size and mission, leaving McCain to imagine he was doing business with the delegation of an influential college organization, some key piece of the district puzzle he could grab early on.

I figured out the situation only when, wrapping things up, McCain turned to me with an earnest pitch: “So, if I get into this race, I’d be honored if I could count on the support of the Tuesday Club.” My friends and I nodded assurances — yes, we would certainly consider it — finished off a tray of treats Cindy had brought out, and departed leaving no suspicion that the candidate-to-be had just thrown away an afternoon.

Today’s storied “maverick” of the Senate was back then a regular sight around ASU, addressing ROTC and other student groups, pressing campaign buttons on passersby in the Sun Devil Stadium parking lot, finding the people with actual influence in the district, and with a stamina and personal story impossible to match making himself, by 1986, the obvious successor to Barry Goldwater.

From there it was on to all his years as a presence in national politics, although my own next brush with his career came in 2000 as a speechwriter in the campaign of George W. Bush. And, I admit, I didn’t mind at all that some Republican voters that year didn’t care for the senator, regarding him as a media pet and creature of Washington.

Happily, his second chance in 2008 would bring one for me, too. I didn’t really know anyone on his team but made it my business to meet them, and from late March until Election Day I got my best look at John McCain in action, as America did as well. I wasn’t anything like a close adviser, just a late-arriving addition to the staff, scarcely remembered by the candidate from our Tempe encounters in the ’80s.

All the more in retrospect, what became the McCain-Palin enterprise was a great experience, leading to a loss that, on a résumé, I wouldn’t trade for other people’s victories. And before I got there, of course, the most improbable part of the effort had already unfolded — the “McCain Miracle.”

Reporters have lately been recalling the story with admiration, though at the time a charitable word for the candidate was hard to come by. In the months before the primaries, he had been written off, the quotable, ever-accessible straight talker of 2000 who had lost his charm, mostly because the situation in the Iraq war was desperate, he was associated with it, and he would not equivocate. His campaign was a wreck, his consultants had scattered, he was flying commercial and unaccompanied to New Hampshire. Continuing news coverage was termed a “death watch.”

‘We’re at 3 percent and the poll has a 5 percent margin of error,’ went John McCain’s stock line early in the 2008 campaign — along with that other old favorite: ‘In the words of Chairman Mao, “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”’

Veterans of the 1996 presidential contest could remember a vanishing of prominent friends and supporters as November neared, leaving Bob Dole in the last hours to face his fate practically alone on the stage except for the senator from Arizona. That was the shape of McCain’s own quest by late 2007. “We’re at 3 percent and the poll has a 5 percent margin of error,” went his stock line at the time — along with that other old favorite: “In the words of Chairman Mao, ‘It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.’”

He refused to quit and, above all, he would not abandon the cause in Iraq, saying — in surely the most enduring words of any 2008 candidate — “I would rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.”

He had been getting a dose of the same sort of counsel President Bush was hearing about the troop surge in Iraq: pointless, over, done, get out. Unlike so many others who had cast their votes to authorize that war, however, this senator had thought through the consequences before deciding, aware that enormous difficulties might come and that perseverance would be needed. He wouldn’t hedge. Tying his own fortunes to those of our troops, in what looked to some 70 percent of Americans like a futile effort, he was at that moment, as National Review editor Rich Lowry observed, “the very picture of courageous political leadership.”

I have never understood the contempt that some conservatives direct at the senator for McCain-Feingold, the old Gang of 8, or other matters on which he has by now, at the very least, earned the presumption of upright intention. He did not in early 2008, in any case, look like a man of the establishment. And, never mind the success of the surge in Iraq, his reward for grit was to hear himself, as the New Hampshire winner and eventual nominee, accused of wanting “a hundred-year war,” a phrase endlessly repeated by Barack Obama.

As if our candidate, with a son in Iraq at the time, really needed reminding of the cost and risk of a military commitment. Even more galling, later in 2008, was the impression put about by the Obama campaign and obliging reporters that the then-71-year-old senator was a little, you know, “erratic.” “Unsteady” and so oddly “angry,” too (who really knew what damage all that torture and solitary confinement had left?). It was an especially shabby touch, given McCain’s steadfastness on by far the hardest and most crucial security issue of that election year. And we now know that “unsteady” far better describes the presidential judgment that would later squander the gains of the surge to invite a wider conflict and tragedies worse than before — again, despite the warnings of Senator McCain.

Acknowledging his opponent’s military record, Obama always used the same formulation — “Of course, John McCain is an American hero, but . . . Now, John McCain is an American hero, but . . . ” — as if by repetition to make it seem obligatory and trite. No faulting him for that — the last thing the Obama campaign needed was thoughtful attention to what exactly their opponent’s heroism had entailed. How else, as a rival for high office, are you going to deal with a guy who spent five and a half years in extreme pain, privation, and loneliness in the hands of the enemy, at any moment of which he could have gone home by simply agreeing to be released out of turn?

One would think that, having made his acquaintance long before, I would by 2008 already have troubled myself to read Faith of My Fathers, McCain’s definitive telling of the prisoner-of-war experience, timed to introduce himself as a national contender in 2000. In truth, I didn’t get around to it until, as a McCain-Palin speechwriter, I had a practical reason for doing so. One of the senator’s many close collaborations with my 2008 colleague, the masterful Mark Salter, the book is a work of enduring beauty, a devotional to country that you’ll never forget, and I remember thinking, if we didn’t make it that year, what a loss to presidential literature.

Though to his credit McCain never let himself become a “professional POW,” forever trading on that identity, of course it’s everything, a long-ago passage through the underside of life that made him who he is. Just a few weeks ago, in a 60 Minutes interview, he called his bonds with fellow POWs “the joy of my life.” Here’s a passage that explains why, describing an exchange, in taps on the wall, with a man in the next cell named Bob Craner:

He was a remarkably composed man with the courage to accept any fate with great dignity. There were times when I would start to lose my nerve. I would detect some sign that another camp purge was coming, and my dread of another beating would start to get the better of my self-control. Anticipating a beating could prove more unnerving than the beating itself.

“Bob, I think it’s coming again, and I don’t think they’ll miss us.”

“If it comes, it comes,” he counseled me. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.”

It may strike others as odd that such fatalism could have comforted us, but it did. It was the best attitude you could hold under the circumstances. It steeled me when I was weak, and made me feel better about myself. Worrying about a beating was pointless. There wasn’t much I could do to prevent it, save disgrace myself, and disgrace hurt more than the worst beating.

You don’t get many points in politics anymore for modesty, understatement, or manful reserve, and the book in that way, like McCain’s Senate speeches, echoes a different era. There is not one false note or pretentious touch. There’s a wisdom, nobility, and self-knowledge beyond anything that politics has to teach. There are stories, too, that in both of his presidential campaigns should have spoken to the hearts of religious-conservative voters – who for reasons of their own never quite took to McCain – in ways far more important than a candidate’s standing at Bob Jones University, or his failure to grovel before this or that group.

Most impressive of all, McCain in the truly stirring parts of Faith of My Fathers extols the examples of other prisoners. (You have to hear their own accounts, as I have in person, to learn how much those fellow captives admired and counted on him.) In one well-known scene, later included in a movie, McCain recalls seeing a young sailor named Mike Christian fashioning an American flag from scraps of cloth, having just received merciless punishment for the same offense:

With his eyes nearly swollen shut from the beating, he had quietly picked up his needle and thread and begun sewing a new flag. I witnessed many acts of heroism in prison, but none braver than that. As I watched him, I felt a surge of pride at serving with him, and an equal measure of humility for lacking that extra ration of courage that distinguished Mike Christian from other men.

“Old news,” as many voters dismissed reminders of our candidate’s service. Not enough of them rated his life experiences “relevant to people like me,” as the pollsters put it. And so in November 2008 we ended up with the author of Dreams from My Father, a self-involved narrative with made-up characters, and not the author of Faith of My Fathers, the story of actual men who served and suffered for their country.

This was not, after all, some flash of glory in combat but the prolonged endurance of fear, despair, humiliation, brokenness, and the overcoming of evil by love and solidarity. When all that won’t cut it for people craving an “inspirational” figure, it is not the candidate who’s missing something.

We were spared a What Happened–type meditation after 2008, an agonizing over all of the loser’s bad breaks, but none was needed anyway. What happened was that when the market began to collapse in mid September, the good judgment of millions of voters went with it. Nor has the national political press corps ever been more hopelessly in the thrall of one candidate than it was that year, forgetting any respectable standard of journalism.

So often in politics we hear ringing or tough words offered as strength that are really, to borrow a phrase from Eric Hoffer, just ‘the weak man’s imitation of strength.’

Not even its partiality to Hillary Clinton in 2016, fear-driven, came anywhere near the obsequious pampering accorded to Obama, lest any disclosure, misstep, or hint of criticism be allowed to threaten his historic ascent. In a debate with McCain, Obama shared a moving autobiographical story of his own about how the health-care issue was “personal to me,” and stopped telling the story only when the election was safely behind him and some reporter with time on his hands finally bothered to look into it, establishing that no such thing had ever happened. Obama casually broke a repeated pledge to accept public financing in the general election (while McCain kept his word), but who cared, or even presumed to solicit an explanation?

I used to say in that campaign that Team Obama was obviously very sharp and talented but that it must be nice to wake up every morning with half your work already done for you by the media. It fell to an editor at Politico to finally say outright what everyone knew: “In the closing weeks of this election, John McCain and Sarah Palin are getting hosed in the press.”

Palin, of course, was her own story, highlighted by the panic she caused to Democrats with her sparkling debut, within days turning a deficit of 6.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average into a lead of 2.4. President Bush is said to have remarked, after her morale-boosting arrival on the scene, “That little lady has no idea what’s about to come her way,” and we all soon learned in the media savaging that followed.

A lesser man, when things got rough for his running mate, might have directed his frustration outward. Instead, as I saw a few times myself, he had only encouragement and kindness to offer, accepting the responsibility as his own. “On the upswing and the down,” as the authors of Game Change put it, “through the nastiest moments . . . , not an ill word escaped his lips about Palin. . . . . He treated Palin chivalrously, inquiring regularly about her well-being and that of her family. We asked a lot of her, McCain said, and he meant it.”

To complete the picture in 2008, we needed only the accusations of racial animus, provided as usual by the tiresome Georgia congressman John Lewis. Weeks before the Election Day, he warned that McCain was “sowing the seeds of hatred and division,” in such a “vicious” manner that it reminded Lewis, as every Republican nominee does sooner or later, of George Wallace. This from a decades-long “friend” of McCain’s who knew much better, libeling a candidate who had declined to exploit — to note but one example — the pastoral exhortations of Obama’s outlandish spiritual guide, saying simply of Rev. Wright: “I think that when people support you, it doesn’t mean that you support everything they say. Obviously, those words and those statements are statements that none of us would associate ourselves with, and I don’t believe that Senator Obama would support any of those, as well.”

It was a point of honor that I doubt would have restrained the Obama campaign in any comparable circumstances, and there were other such moments. If you’re feeling nostalgic sometime, have a look at videos from the fall of that year showing McCain at a town hall repeatedly calming and correcting people who called his opponent dangerous, or “an Arab,” or someone to be “scared of”: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with. . . . I have to tell you, Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States. . . . We want to fight, and I will fight. But I will be respectful.”

And so on, these and similar answers actually earning him jeers and a shout of “Liar!” from the crowd. As in his bearing in delivering the concession speech (“And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours”), or setting the gold standard of grace at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in the closing days, it was our ’08 standard-bearer in form, his own man, refusing to play to the crowd, and handling himself with more class on the way to a bitter defeat than many others have managed on the way to victory.

So often in politics we hear ringing or tough words offered as strength that are really, to borrow a phrase from Eric Hoffer, just “the weak man’s imitation of strength.” A lot depends on enough voters’ discerning the difference, and the 2008 verdict, for all of the winner’s own finer points, was a big miss. For our part in that campaign, we owe the also-ran the wonderful recollection of working for someone who merited our affection and also commanded our complete respect. I have never cast a vote for president with greater confidence in the worthiness of a candidate, nor felt so fortunate to have shared in failure. As Charles Krauthammer reflected at the time, “McCain ran a valiant race against impossible odds. He will be — he should be — remembered as the most worthy presidential nominee ever to be denied the prize.”

Not one to let disappointment linger, McCain long ago moved on. He continues as our stoical, self-deprecating, “imperfect servant,” insisting on bygone customs such as “regular order” in the Senate, wondering why debates in Congress cannot more often be “an argument among friends,” reminding us of “causes greater than self-interest,” attending to security threats others notice only in crises — and in general, whatever the rough edges, acting and speaking the way mature men and women were once expected to in conducting the affairs of their country.

When he wasn’t giving that suspenseful thumbs-down to the last-ditch Obamacare repeal last month, indifferent to pressure one way or the other, you could find him on Face the Nation discoursing on military readiness, guiding Senate approval of the Defense Reauthorization Act, chairing an Armed Services Committee hearing on the recent fatal collisions of four naval ships, and personally calling each of the families of the ten sailors lost on one of those ships — the USS John S. McCain, named for both his father and grandfather. I happened to catch a C-SPAN clip of that hearing, after which the senator could be seen comforting the families in attendance, at one point holding the father of a sailor killed on the USS Fitzgerald in a long, sorrowful embrace.

Always onward — so relentlessly that we could be excused for at times forgetting his own most recent misfortune. The subject of the cancer comes up with interviewers, and they get spare replies along the lines of what he told CNN’s Jake Tapper, who inquired about his prospects: “Every life has to end one way or another.” He’s giving it his all, while trying to be “joyful.” After all he’s had “a wonderful life, and I will be grateful for additional time that I have.” How, Tapper wondered, would McCain wish to be remembered? “He served his country. And not always right, made a lot of mistakes. . . . But served his country. And I hope we can add — honorably.”

That would certainly be the shorthand version of a tribute not due, one prays, anytime soon. His eulogists have had to bide their time since October 1967, exactly half a century ago when he was shot down over Hanoi, and may it be years more before they are needed to sum up a career of thoroughly honorable service that, if less than perfect by John McCain’s own measure, to most of us looks pretty damn close. As that heartbroken father of the Fitzgerald sailor might well have thought to himself, this is a great man, once more the very picture of personal courage. And an example like that is never old news.

READ MORE:

Appreciating John McCain

John McCain: American Hero

Senator John McCain Faces One More Fight, and Everyone’s in His Corner

Matthew Scully — Matthew Scully, a former literary editor of National Review, served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and for the late Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey.

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