JOHN McCain may be judged by history to be a transcendent figure in late 20th Century American history. Or not. In some ways, he was typical, even emblematic, of a social and political evolution away from meritocracy and toward nepotism. In other ways, he was an almost unimaginably stoical and heroic throwback to a revered frontier past.
Whether McCain and his self-orchestrated funeral and memorials last week become a forgotten historical footnote or another nail in the political coffin of Donald Trump, it is worth taking a look back at the career and life of a man whom many will recall as simultaneously principled and flawed.
McCain was the son and grandson of US Navy admirals. As such, in the real world of elite privilege, he was virtually assured a place at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, one of America’s premier educational institutions.
Like the sons of other famous fathers, notably President George W Bush and Senator Al Gore, McCain found competing with his father difficult and he admittedly squandered a magnificent educational opportunity in college. McCain was widely reported to have often bragged about finishing almost at the very bottom of his college class.
Unlike Bush and Gore, though, McCain found himself in actual combat in the Vietnam War and spent over five years in a Hanoi prison as America’s most famous prisoner of war. His emergence from the brutal horrors and isolation of that experience became a tale that was inspirational for many. Though his entry and success in Arizona politics seemed inevitable in hindsight, it was not either easy nor seamless. Nonetheless, he rose to contend in 2000 for the Republican presidential nomination and win it eight years later.
McCain’s choice of obscure Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate proved to be calamitous. Profoundly unqualified and unprepared for national responsibilities, Palin revealed her innocence and ignorance repeatedly during a campaign that produced the phenomenon of the election of a black American as US president.
During the past ten years, McCain was twice re-elected to the Senate, the first time with the help of Palin in fending off a Tea Party primary challenge that he may otherwise not have survived. Sometimes a maverick but often a loyal Republican lieutenant, he suffered from ill health but persevered.
McCain was enrolled in the ranks of those who despise Trump in what appeared to be a gradual process spanning the past several years. The American president, who managed a medical draft deferment exempting him from inconvenient risk during the Vietnam era, callously and casually noted last year that he preferred veterans who had not been captured in explaining his antipathy toward McCain.
McCain, more about getting even than getting mad, responded at the time in measured fashion. But he may have had his revenge in casting a decisive vote against his party leadership in defeating a misguided 2017 Senate attempt to roll back or repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement that still offers the best chance to reform America’s expensive and inefficient health care system.
The senior Arizona senator also got in the last shot of his increasingly public skirmish with Trump by explicitly not inviting him to participate in the pageantry of his Washington funeral. There was a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal edifice that sits on Washington’s highest ground and hosts the truly significant funeral services in the American capital. There was the lying in state in the capitol rotunda.
But nowhere to be seen was the current American president and member of McCain’s own political party. Former presidents Bush and Obama, who had defeated McCain in 2000 and 2008, were highly visible. In response, Trump reportedly played golf outside Washington at his own golf course during the funeral.
Recent polls continue to suggest Trump’s nasty and impetuous behaviour have finally turned the American electorate against him. While these are the same polls that so misled Hillary Clinton and many others only two years ago, the feeling is growing that America may finally be fed up with Trump. 60 percent of US voters now reportedly disapprove of him.
Maybe Trump’s defeat will be John McCain’s best revenge.