John McCain’s Immediate Legacy Should Be His Desire To Be Held Accountable

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We don’t need more articles trying to eulogize John McCain. Your thoughts on the man and his life are almost certainly locked in — dictated by your thoughts on his politics. And since he never strayed as far from the Republican party (even Trump’s iteration of the Republican party) as the media likes to pretend, and was never nearly the political maverick that he claimed to be, any hot takes on his life likely follow the party line closely.

The question then becomes, is there anything that transcends party? Any aspect of the man that exists outside of his voting record for us to rally around as we move forward? For me, this is found in McCain’s ability to be self-critical and to invite criticism by advocating for the free press. While I agree with relatively little that he did as a senator, I find myself admiring how he embraced a spirit of discourse in a way that the nation feels starved for right now.

This quality, in a sane world, doesn’t seem particularly revelatory. But in our world — where our president scorns the free press and lies about even his most mundane slip-ups (making them seem particularly sinister) — the late senator’s commitment to the importance of politicians being held accountable (from both the inside out and the outside in) is significant.


In 2000, John McCain was in a tight race for the Republican presidential nomination with George W. Bush in South Carolina when he had to face questions about the Confederate flag. In January, when asked about the flag, he called it a “symbol of racism and slavery.” Almost immediately his team flew into damage control. There were things you did not do at that time when campaigning for the GOP vote in the south and attacking the “stars and bars” was one of them. The next day and throughout the rest of the campaign, when pressed on the issue he recanted — calling the flag a “symbol of heritage.”

This latter perspective — for anyone who fully savvies the power of symbols to transmit ideas and recognizes this symbol as one of genocidal racism — is horribly wronghead. But here is McCain the self-critic in action: A few months later, he was back in South Carolina and had reverted to his previously stated opinion. While slamming the flag and the ideals it stood for, he apologized for putting politics over straight talk and admitted, “I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”

When McCain did this he recognized that it would invite more critique:

I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept it, all of it. I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact when my own interests are no longer involved. I don’t seek absolution.

This was John McCain as we knew him: Imperfect but on a quest to find some sort of “moral rightness” — even when it didn’t intersect with the desires of his party or he’d given answers that pleased a voting block but failed to do justice to his internal landscape.