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.
Of course, no one is asking you to believe in McCain’s idea of “moral rightness” — I know I often didn’t. The point is that he was on a quest for it. Which isn’t everything. The man will eventually have to be evaluated for what he did and how his leadership affected the lives of real people. But it is something. Because a willingness to reevaluate moral conversations aloud and in public feels worth highlighting in our current political moment.
The free press was, in its constitutional incarnation, always meant to be part of our system of checks and balances. It was part of how politicians — people with tremendous power and privilege — were forced to keep promises and tell the truth. It’s no wonder then that McCain defended them so fiercely. His morality-over-all philosophy left room for his politics to be criticized.
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it,” he famously said in 2017, in the wake of Donald Trump attacking the press, “you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
McCain knew dictators and wasn’t one to toy with the dictator’s rhetoric or tools. Instead, he welcomed discourse with the press, though it often wasn’t favorable to him.
One of the most parsed moments since McCain’s death has been the footage of him on the campaign trail defending Obama to a pre-MAGA crowd. Later in the clip, a woman calls Obama an “Arab” as a means of explaining why she doesn’t trust him and McCain cuts her off.
“He’s not. He’s a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.”
On its face, that seems like a moment of incredible solidarity between candidates. But looking back, it’s easy to see (and has been mentioned often on social media) that McCain actually missed a chance to go further — refuting the idea that Arabs were somehow inherently not decent, or family-oriented. In that sense, the response feels… if not outright racist then at least inadvertently playing into a racist narrative.
Here’s the difference between McCain and Trump, though: We can fathom a world where someone unpacked that interpretation of the moment for McCain and he recognized his error and copped to it. Trump wouldn’t. The idea that we want to give the deceased senator that sort of benefit of the doubt speaks to the way he tried to live — governed by a morality that could, at times, stretch beyond politics.
Since McCain’s death, his courage has been praised. Much has been made of his bravery in the face of torture (or in opposing the use of torture post-9/11). But his truest sort of courage may have been the intellectual bravery required to self-evaluate in the face of critique and to invite more criticism through the media. We don’t need more McCain tributes. He’ll get credited plenty in the days to come. But if we’re able to see some takeaway from his life that can transcend politics, his commitment to discourse and accountability (to the press, the public, and himself) is one that our world is sorely lacking.
In 2018, those are qualities that will be missed.