Describing his boss John McCain, the senator’s chief of staff, Grant Woods, says, “If he showed us how to live, he’s also showing us how to die.” There can be no doubt about that. Stricken with brain cancer, McCain is all smiles as he addresses the camera in HBO’s documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. “I greet every day with gratitude. . . . I’m confident and I’m happy. I’m very grateful for the life I’ve been able to lead. And I greet the future with joy.”
Duty, honor, country. McCain embodies these ideals, but if there’s one word that summarizes the conservative spirit, it is not these but (as Yuval Levin says) gratitude. It’s a fair question, though, whether the senator would have been a conservative president. The two-hour film, which like virtually all HBO documentaries has an unconcealed progressive or statist bent, heaves with testimonials from McCain’s best friends: They are Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry . . . Bill Clinton steps in with some praise. Hillary Clinton seems to think that she and McCain are on the same page when it comes to climate change. Ted Kennedy’s widow praises McCain.
So does Barack Obama, although as is his wont, the previous president is mainly interested in what McCain did for him. That was quite a lot: In a town-hall discussion from the 2008 campaign, McCain is seen advising his audience that they needn’t be scared of an Obama presidency. (Loud booing ensues.) To the HBO filmmakers and their intended audience, this is evidence of McCain’s fundamental decency; to conservatives it looks more like page one in the How to Lose an Election manual. McCain tells us in the documentary that he still rues the day he allowed himself to be talked out of selecting Lieberman as his running mate but leaves unanswered the question of why voters would prefer half a Democratic ticket to a full one. Pollster Bill McInturff told the then-candidate, “We’re going to have a bloodbath on the convention floor just to nominate him.” McCain today: “I should have said, Look, we’ve got a helluva campaign anyway. Joe Lieberman is my best friend, we should take him.” (McCain continues to deflect inquiries about what he thinks about the running mate he actually selected, Sarah Palin.)
Absent the September 2008 financial crisis, history might have been very different — and much more congenial to progressive goals. McCain might have been, like Nixon, a big-government Republican eager to “get things done,” meaning: sign bipartisan bills that codified progressive goals. He might well have nominated spineless conservatives or even liberals to the Supreme Court. A McCain presidency might have turned the Republican party into something like today’s wan, denatured Tories of Britain. Democrats might have been wiser to reject the more progressive candidate in order to get enduring progressive substance. Instead they got Obama’s Etch A Sketch progressivism, which now stands mostly erased from the history books.
If McCain might have been a poor president, though, he is surely a great man and a great character. “You will never talk to anyone that is as fortunate as John McCain,” he tells the camera in a moment worthy of Lou Gehrig. Since he was a boy, his favorite book has always been For Whom the Bell Tolls, about a leftist American fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War. McCain, typically, seems uninterested in the book’s politics. For him the takeaway is this: “The harder the cause, even lost, the better the cause,” says Mark Salter, co-author of McCain’s books. Robert Jordan remains “my hero today,” McCain says, citing those who make “sacrifices for causes better than themselves.”
The documentary takes us back to McCain’s horrifying days in Vietnam, where he was shot down, taken captive, tortured, and imprisoned for five and a half years, nearly half of that in solitary confinement. “McCains were doing what McCains were bred to,” says his brother Joe. When Vietnamese officers told McCain to publicly thank his doctors for their kind treatment, he says he responded, “Well, first of all, I’d like to say, ‘Where the f*** have you been for the last five years?’” Yet his then-wife, Carol, recalls, “John was not angry. He was just happy to be home.” Decades later, on a visit to Hanoi, McCain is wry: “It’s nice to check on the condition of my statue. It’s the only one I’ve got.”
War-hardened though he is, though, McCain seems a bit bewildered by the press’s hostility toward him in the 2008 campaign, considering how they fawned over him in 2000. Reflecting on this, he makes no mention of the obvious difference: In 2008 he was running against Barack Obama. In 2000 he was running against George W. Bush. The latter, interviewed here, is not afforded the opportunity to defend himself against the documentary’s implication that he approved a racist whisper campaign in the South Carolina primary against McCain’s family, which includes an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.
Other politicians speak of selfless public service, but few have enacted it as nobly as John Sidney McCain III.
McCain seems to think the Confederate-flag issue was more responsible for his defeat. That flag was still flying proudly over the state capitol at the time, and the prospect of removing it was anathema to South Carolina Republicans. McCain first called it “a symbol of racism,” then changed course and called it “a symbol of heritage.” He feels bad about not sticking with his initial instinct, and the voters were turned off by his vacillating. “One of the few politicians I’ve ever covered who has an authentic inner voice,” says David Brooks. “McCain has never been able to lie to himself very well.”
Facing his final months, he carries that forthrightness still, along with extraordinary grit and dignity. Former campaign manager Rick Davis recalls working the trail with him: “His knees are all busted up, but he out-walks everybody who tries to do a campaign event with him. His shoulders don’t function properly — he can’t comb his own hair — but he gets through the day looking just fine.” Here is how Davis learned from McCain about his terminal diagnosis: “In a very nonchalant way he says, ‘You know, I had my check-up today and they just called to tell me to turn my car around and come back.’” When he announced his candidacy for the presidency back in 1999, McCain said, “America doesn’t owe me anything. I owe America more than she has ever owed me.” Other politicians speak of selfless public service, but few have enacted it as nobly as John Sidney McCain III.