The Morning Jolt

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The Fair-Weather Admiration of John McCain

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain speaks at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., November 3, 2008. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

John McCain loved his country, and his country was fortunate to receive that love.

No one could have begrudged McCain if after five years in a cage, in some of the worst imaginable conditions as a prisoner of war, he became a bitter, angry man. He had five years of his life taken from him, spent two years in solitary confinement, was beaten two to three times a week, refused an early release, and was left permanently disabled. On top of all that, many of his countrymen failed to properly appreciate the sacrifices of himself and his fellow Vietnam veterans. How many of us could even remotely resemble “happy warriors” after experiences like that?

McCain publicly catalogued his wild and crazy years after his return, and his failures in his first marriage, but he figured out that he had a lot more he could and should do with his time remaining on this earth. And what a legacy it is: two terms in the U.S. House, six terms in the Senate, nearly 800 pieces of legislation introduced, thousands of votes, six books, hundreds of speeches, two presidential campaigns, seven children.

But is it petty to remember all the times those who praise McCain today derided him as “Crazy Grandpa Warmonger”?

A lot of us remember 2008; it wasn’t that long ago. Would it kill those political figures and those who covered McCain over the decades to contemplate if they were fair to the man, particularly in the 2008 presidential cycle? Because maybe no national figure in the modern era flipped so quickly from the hero to the villain column in his media coverage and back, depending upon whether the majority of the mainstream media agreed with his stances or not.

Chuck Schumer offers a particularly vivid example.

Back during the 2008 campaign, Chuck Schumer was telling the press, “It’s John McCain who wears $500 shoes, has six houses, and comes from one of the richest families in his state . . . he doesn’t particularly empathize with the plight of the average person.” During the Wall Street meltdown, Schumer said that McCain’s presence in Washington would only make things worse: “He has not been involved except for an occasional, unhelpful statement, sort of thrown from far away, and the last thing we need in these delicate negotiations is an injection of presidential politics.”

Now Schumer tells us, “He always, always had an incredible moral compass, and he spoke truth to power,” and he wants to rename the Russell Senate Office building after him. What happened to the complaints about the expensive shoes?

You could measure the coverage of McCain by who he was being contrasted with at that moment — against Bush in 2000 he was a hero, against Barack Obama in 2008 he was a villain, and against Trump in 2016 he was a hero again.

Back in the late 1990s, the national media loved McCain for deviating from the Republican party line on tobacco settlements and campaign-finance reform, which would have made it more difficult for ordinary citizens to use their money to support their preferred candidates and made the exempted media coverage even more influential. But the really glowing profile pieces arrived during McCain’s 2000 campaign, and the “Straight Talk Express” bus, where McCain would answer questions bluntly and joke around and generally bask in the freedom that little or nothing he would say would be interpreted as a damaging gaffe. (In 2008, McCain was kind enough to grant me two exclusive interviews and he was funny and quotable as you would expect.)

In the 2000 GOP primary, most of the media quickly figured out they preferred him to George W. Bush. That year, The New Republic endorsed McCain in the Republican primaries, declaring, “for the first time in recent memory, a serious Republican presidential candidate is seeking to remake his party into something other than the political arm of the privileged few.”

After 9/11, McCain emerged as a strong supporter of the War on Terror and war in Iraq, and in most of the media’s eyes, McCain became just another Republican villain. Michael Moore made the “loser” sign at McCain during his speech at the 2004 Republican convention. By 2006, Ezra Klein was criticizing McCain’s status as “every liberal’s favorite conservative,” spotlighting his “wingnut bonafides.” The coverage of McCain in the Bush years was predictable; when McCain touted comprehensive immigration reform, he was a hero; when he supported the surge, he was “embracing an unpopular strategy that will make an already unpopular war longer and bloodier.”

(As we all know, the surge worked, and violence and casualties in Iraq dropped. But measuring McCain’s foreign-policy legacy is complicated by the fact that he himself concluded earlier this year, “the [Iraq] war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”)

By 2008, the same New Republic magazine that had once endorsed him suddenly remembered the Keating Five scandal from 1989 and suggested he should have been expelled from the Senate for it. Elsewhere in that magazine, Barron YoungSmith scoffed at any talk of McCain’s maturity and wisdom from his post-war recklessness: “Given that traits exhibited at the age of fifty are reasonable indicators of character, I’ll match [Ed] Kilgore’s assertion that McCain’s callowness ‘persisted well into late-middle-age’ and do him one better: Once callow, always callow.” (I don’t remember that magazine ever applying that standard to Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, or Barack Obama.)

Suddenly the McCain charm and humor that reporters ate up with a spoon in 2000 was being reinterpreted as an endless series of controversial “gaffes.” His joke of singing “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of Barbara Ann was seen as ipso facto evidence of anti-Muslim animus, or warmongering, or senility.

The 2008 general election brought a lot of profiles focusing on “the dark side of John McCain” with stories such as the Keating Five scandal, which for some strange reason hadn’t seemed all that newsworthy during the GOP primary eight years earlier. The media suddenly began to focus on his family’s wealth, which hadn’t been much of an issue in 2000, either. The value of military service as preparation for the presidency, such a strong argument in the 2004 race between Bush and John Kerry, suddenly disappeared once the race became John McCain vs. Barack Obama. (Kerry reportedly probed McCain’s interest in being his running mate several times.)

Rolling Stone assured its readers that the tale of honorable, patriotic McCain was all a myth, and that the senator was “a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.”

In a campaign ad, the Obama campaign mocked McCain’s age and inability to use a computer. (Eventually, even Joe Biden called the ad “terrible.”) Yet media coverage lamented that John McCain had somehow “sold his soul” to win the Republican nomination. The New Yorker contended McCain had “betrayed his ideals.”

McCain remained mostly in villain status through Obama’s presidency, although sometimes he could still get good coverage when contrasted with another, usually more conservative Republican. The arrival of Trump made McCain a hero again.

McCain was one of those men who was a joy to have as an ally and an absolute pain in the rear when you disagree. He was indeed a maverick, and that was one of the factors that made him such a challenging nominee for president; it’s hard to unify the party when you’ve spent a significant amount of time telling other members of your party that they’re wrong. No doubt, when McCain took a position, he did it because he was convinced it was the right thing to do. In fact, it was his absolute certainty that his chosen path was the righteous one that made McCain so infuriating. His favorite slogan, “Country First,” carried with it that the implication that those who were on the other side of the issue were putting personal or partisan interests first.

He will be missed because he was, despite his flaws, a good man. He was good because of his dedication, his generally good humor, his passion, and despite all the crankiness and temper, his abiding love for his country and family.

We would be better served if our national political media could expand its definition of “a good man” beyond the habit of defying conservative orthodoxy.

An Accusation That Cannot Go Unanswered

Your Holiness, this is not the sort of accusation you can just ignore:

Pope Francis refused to answer accusations that he knew about alleged sex abuse by a former cardinal, and allowed him to serve unpunished.

While the pope was in Ireland and meeting sex abuse victims, a former Vatican official made the claims in a letter. This came less than two weeks after a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

The 11-page letter by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican Ambassador to the U.S., claims that in 2013 he told Pope Francis of the allegations of sex abuse against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. But, he writes, the pontiff ignored that, and allowed McCarrick to continue to publicly serve the church for another five years.

The explosive letter called on Pope Francis to resign.

“I will not say a word about this,” Pope Francis told reporters. “I believe the document speaks for itself.”

Your Holiness, it really doesn’t speak for itself. Ross Douthat calls it “either an extraordinary and vicious slander or an act of revelation that should be the undoing of just about every figure mentioned in its pages.”

Earlier this year, the pope already found himself admitting he made “serious mistakes” regarding abuse allegations in Chile, accusing some victims of committing “slander.” Pope Francis loudly and passionately publicly defended a bishop who was accused of being complicit in a coverup. But both the Vatican and the Chilean courts deemed the accusations credible. So it’s not like the pope can plausibly claim he’s demonstrated sterling judgment in addressing this issue.

ADDENDA: In case you missed it Friday afternoon, why elected officials need all of that scrutiny that they find so unfair and invasive.