By David K. Shipler
Not since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 has a senator’s death inspired such an outpouring of affectionate eulogy as the loss of John McCain. It takes nothing from McCain to observe that this week of mourning has been mostly a celebration of contrast—the stark contrast between a decent man who traveled a noble road and a corrupt president who wallows in the gutters of vindictiveness.
Had McCain died three years ago, before the advent of Trumpism, he would probably have been accorded due respect but hardly the effusive tributes and live funeral broadcasts that have been conveyed by “the enemy of the people,” as Trump enjoys calling America’s free press. McCain’s stature has been enhanced, ironically, by the misdeeds of his own party: Trump, who effectively dodged the draft, denigrated McCain’s ordeal as a POW in North Vietnam; McCain, as a victim of Vietnamese torture, denounced American torture under president George W. Bush; McCain stood up against Trump’s divisive incivility toward Americans and his obsequious flirtation with Russia; McCain gave his famous thumbs down on the Senate floor to his Republican colleagues’ witless attempt to strip Americans of the health benefits of Obamacare. So the late senator has now been immortalized as a principled, independent thinker and a creative maverick.
That is an exaggeration. Mostly he went along with his party on key conservative issues. And he certainly exercised poor judgment from time to time: He and four other senators intervened unethically with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating Jr., a bank executive who gave his campaign $112,000 and later went to prison for fraud against elderly investors. McCain later confessed to having learned a couple of lessons, including a sensitivity to the mere appearance of conflict and a willingness to address accusations openly in the press, rather than trying to hide. (“Flashing his quick temper, he insulted, cursed and hung up on reporters questioning him about his ties to Keating,” CBS reported.) He went on to team up with former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold to champion limits on campaign financing.
Then, his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008 helped doom his campaign and probably hardened the country's tolerance for hateful ignorance in politics. It’s not far-fetched to speculate that Palin’s colossal unfitness for office (“I can see Russia”) paved the way for an acceptance of Trump. It certainly raised the threshold that political malfeasance now has to pass to spark widespread outrage and disgust.
Still, McCain was a throwback to an earlier Republican Party that didn’t vilify the Democratic opposition but worked with it. In a perfect world, he would not have been remarkable in his ability to rise above the personal and see the common good. Despite crippling torture by his North Vietnamese captors after his Navy jet was shot down during a bombing mission, he pressed successfully for the US to reconcile with Vietnam and establish diplomatic and trade relations.
He had an inquisitive character that transcended ideology. Soon after his release from prison, on a 1974 visit to South Vietnam recounted this week by Arnold R. Isaacs, then of the Baltimore Sun, he displayed an open-minded curiosity about the progress of the war; he seemed willing to hear bleak assessments from correspondents who were seeing at ground level that things were going badly for the South after the American withdrawal.
“McCain didn’t come to my room to tell his own story or to talk about his visit,” wrote Isaacs (who is also my brother-in-law). “He wanted to listen, not talk, and get a more independent, less sugar-coated perspective on Vietnam than he was hearing in briefings from the U.S. embassy and Vietnamese government officials. During those late-evening chats he’d tell me a bit about his day, but he was more interested in whatever I might tell him about the situation in Vietnam.”
McCain said he hadn’t known much about Vietnam before being shot down. “But since his release he had read extensively, seeking to better understand what the war was about and what his ordeal had been for. He couldn’t be objective, he added with characteristic candor. After everything he’d undergone, he wasn’t ready to think the war was all for nothing, or a mistake.
“Still, he had read all those books, and here he was, asking questions that he surely knew might elicit uncomfortable answers. I had no way to know what was in his mind, but I wondered if he was seeking those answers almost against his will, out of some involuntary need for truth that he might have resisted if he could.”
When President Nguyen Van Thieu’s office offered to take McCain and other former POWs anywhere they wanted to go, McCain shocked officials by asking for Con Son, the notorious island prison where suspected Vietcong were kept in “tiger cages” and subjected to brutal conditions. “With a tight smile,” Isaacs wrote, “McCain explained that he had unwillingly become an expert on North Vietnamese prison conditions and since he had the opportunity, he was curious to see how our ally treated its prisoners.” After seeing Con Son, he told Isaacs that it was pretty bad, though not as severe as in North Vietnam. “He did not go into any details, other than telling me that he had had to ask repeatedly before prison officials would tell him how many prisoners were on the island, and when they finally gave him a number, McCain knew it was far too many to have adequate outdoor exercise in the available space.”
With some exceptions, such as his rant during the Keating scandal, McCain showed an unusual respect for reporters who got into the weeds to find out what was going on. The one time I interviewed him, for a piece on Vietnam vets in Congress, he began by saying, “I’m honored to meet you.” I was sure he used the line often to good effect, but it was disarming, even to a hard-boiled newsman. In any case, I wasn’t there to challenge him. I wanted to know how his experience had affected his view of the world and his positions on issues that came before Congress.
He said that it was critical, before going to war, to have the overwhelming support of the American people. He forgot that lesson when it came time to invade Iraq.
Although McCain planned his own services and funeral down to small details, the pageantry has brought a rare resonance in a country where, sadly, decency and moral principle in public life stand out as heroic instead of routine.