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Narrative of Sacrifice: Remembering John McCain

“We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”

On Saturday, September 1, Meghan McCain gave an emotional eulogy for her father, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the National Cathedral, who died of an aggressive brain cancer on August 25.

Throughout late August and early September, grief for John McCain transcended the everyday boundaries that both divide and diversify the United States. People who rarely involved themselves in politics praised him on their Facebook News Feeds, former political adversaries gave moving tributes, and U.S. presidents across party lines attended and spoke at his funeral services. McCain’s status as an American icon was cemented as McCain was remembered by former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, as celebrities and politicians poured into the nation’s capital, and even as his own daughter spoke.

McCain requested before his death that President Trump not attend his meticulously planned funeral services, but the president’s absence caused him to be felt more than any one attendee could have been.  Trump and McCain sparred publicly even before Trump’s historic win. On July 18, 2015, at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Trump criticized McCain’s history as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump may prefer those who evade captivity, but the long view of McCain’s life reveals how sacrifice was central to his political image. Shot down in a bombing mission over Hanoi and seriously injured, McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967 and held until 1973, during which he spent over two years in solitary confinement and was regularly subjected to torture and starvation. In compliance with the military’s Code of Conduct, he repeatedly refused repatriation unless every man taken before him was also released.

This narrative of sacrifice also fed McCain’s persona as a politician, earning the reputation as a political maverick through acts of compromise and digressions from Republican party goals. The dual nature of a “maverick” reputation—part compromise, part conviction—creates a vision of McCain in the public consciousness as a man of principle, one unable to be swayed too easily to Democrats, but who opposed enough of Republican rhetoric to emphasize that he was still not a partisan follower either.

McCain biographers have noted his often blistering self-reflection after major political decisions. He unwaveringly supported the Iraq War, even as disapproval rates hit 66% in 2005 and it became apparent that American intervention in Iraq would fail at establishing democracy and claim hundreds of thousands of lies. This ardent support for the war contrasts with his self-appointed blame in his 2018 memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations: McCain writes that the Iraq War “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.”

Similarly, McCain spares himself no mercy when he discusses his other political errors. In discussing the 1989 “Keating Five” scandal, in which McCain along with four other senators was accused of assisting a major donor with resisting federal regulators, McCain claimed, “It will be on my tombstone, something that will always be with me, something that will always be in my biography, and deservedly so.” Speaking on his decision to adapt positions on the Confederate flag from recognizing it as a racist symbol to a neutral stance, he lamented his “cowardice”: “I had not been just dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country’s. That was what made the lie unforgivable,” he recalled. “All my heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me.”

To the American public, McCain’s public admissions of fault represent more than political stances, evoking nostalgia for a less partisan, more cooperative reality. In an interview with The Politic, Ian Mullins, a sociology lecturer at Yale, elaborated, “We hold up John McCain to be unique within the Republican Party because he was so reflexive and he admitted fault.”

This reputation was deeply ingrained in McCain’s public image since his rise to prominence in 2000.  David Foster Wallace described in his 2000 Rolling Stone essay the coexistence of McCain’s “humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency.” That year, McCain centered his first presidential campaign on American cynicism becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality.” For tired Americans, McCain’s candor represented an alternative to the impropriety in national politics in the wake of the Watergate and Lewinsky scandals. McCain was witty and likable, an avenue for which Americans could ignore a nasty, partisan reality.

Wallace described the charming, yet strategic McCain in a “moment of almost unprecedented cynicism and disgust with national politics, a moment when blunt, I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality. A moment when an anticandidate can be a real candidate.”

Originally spurred by his bipartisan stance in his 2000 presidential bid, McCain continued regarded throughout much of his career as a “maverick” of the Senate by his closest allies and staunchest adversaries. In a personal tribute after his death on August 25, 2018, left-wing firebrand Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) remembers her time on the Senate Armed Forces Committee by saying, “If there ever was a true American patriot, John was that patriot. I’ll miss his strength and his maverick spirit, but most of all I’ll miss his kindness.”

On the same day, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), once described by The Daily Beast as “the delight of the Tea Party anti-establishment conservatives,” remembered McCain in his own tribute: “He did things his way, and conducted two campaigns for President of the United States with honor and integrity.”

However, it is important to distinguish McCain’s reputation as a “maverick”—someone independent and willing to admit fault—with a reputation as a political moderate. From his first election to the Senate in 1987 to 2015, McCain voted along party lines 87 percent of the time, just a hair less than the median senator’s rating of 91%. And left-wing commentators have emphasized that, one historic vote to defend Obamacare aside, McCain consistently opposed progressive values: McCain shied away from environmental legislation during Obama’s second term, his 2010 Senate campaign ads saw him blaming “illegals” for violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and before that, his history as a Vietnam POW did not prevent him from voting in favor of the CIA’s usage of enhanced interrogation techniques under the Bush administration.

The widespread disdain in 2000 feels familiar to the modern American and illustrates that McCain’s reputation as a challenger to the status quo began far before 2016. Whether it is founded or not, Beverly Gage ’94, the Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy at Yale described his effect on the general populace in an interview with The Politic: “For some Americans, John McCain represents a kind of nostalgia for an era in which politicians compromised… in which Democrats and Republicans actually talked to one another.”

Still, more than memorializing who John McCain was, his memorial services firmly and potently reiterated who McCain was not—more specifically, that McCain’s service-oriented patriotism contrasted clearly with President Trump’s rhetoric. His daughter, Meghan, received a standing ovation for delivering a fierce, scathing rebuttal of President Trump’s campaign slogan in her memorialization: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

As Meghan McCain’s eulogy made clear, her father represented a contrast to the incendiary politics used by the Trump administration.  But Mullins cautions against attributing partisanship solely to the president: “This is something that’s bigger than President Trump. Trump might epitomize a certain type of partisanship and even, potentially, non-reflexive action in politics, but this kind of radical partisanship began to emerge in the 1990s and has developed over decades.”

For many,  McCain became an icon because he represented a willingness to compromise that Trump is seen to lack. All corners of the political spectrum sang McCain’s elegiac praises. In The New York Times, Robert Cohen theorized that McCain’s funeral was no less than a “requiem for the American century.”

President Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election, described their shared vision of bipartisanship and faith in American political institutions in his own eulogy: “He knew that in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together and give shape and order to our common life, even when we disagree—especially when we disagree.”

This is remarkably similar to how President Obama preferred to remember senator and “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who died of the same type of brain cancer as McCain in 2009: according to Obama, Kennedy was a “product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect—a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.”

The irony of this overlap exists in more than just the similar style and meaning behind Obama’s words. There is a stark difference between McCain’s and Kennedy’s political reputations: Kennedy was seen as the leftmost lightning rod for liberal politics, and McCain retained his status as a reasoned, bipartisan voice throughout his career.

However, as Gage reasoned, “Eulogies don’t necessarily tell the unvarnished truth, even for the person delivering the eulogy.” But it was Kennedy who engaged in several bipartisan actions in a Republican-controlled Congress in 1996 and 1997, including raising the federal minimum wage and creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). McCain engaged in bipartisan statesmanship like Kennedy; he voted for the creation of CHIP and the minimum wage increases Kennedy championed. In addition, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act, sponsored by McCain and Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) and passed in 2002, was a feat of bipartisan political cooperation in an effort to prevent wealthy campaign donors from dominating U.S. elections. However, McCain often refused to compromise on partisan issues. In recent politics, McCain is admired for his vote against the Republican-sponsored “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act on July 28, 2017, but failed to vote against other major Republican agenda items, including the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act later that year.

Whereas Kennedy and McCain were lauded by President Obama for their bipartisan efforts, increasingly partisan political aims dominated the legacy of another political figure: partisan representations of President Ronald Reagan’s politics made him a right-wing icon long after his death in 2004.

After Reagan’s presidency, both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms became substantially more right-leaning. According to Mullins, for conservatives, “[Reagan] was a positive icon. He provided them with something to live up to, and it was still that way during the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was Reagan’s campaign slogan. John Kasich was Reagan’s friend and colleague. Republican politicians still aspired to be the party of Reagan, even if their shared understanding of what Reagan the icon stands for is ideologically much further to the right than Reagan the person ever was.”

In a 2004 interview with NPR shortly after Reagan’s death, Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer argued that Reagan’s accomplishments often cause his compromises to go unnoticed. Reagan did engage in bipartisan compromise like any politician: he increased income taxes in 1983, deciding against cuts to Social Security and negotiating an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. In fact, Zelizer argued, Reagan’s “achievements” themselves are often misconstrued to make him seem more politically extreme on economic issues. According to The Washington Post, Reagan actually expanded the government rather than shrinking it, and he inflated the national debt by 190 percent. In addition, Reagan held  policy positions most Americans would find reprehensible, including supporting apartheid in South Africa and backing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq.

Reagan was lauded on the right after his death—though many still remember him positively. But the aftermath of his death, when combined with that of Kennedy and McCain, allows more insight into the complicated nature of death and the opaque means through which we form political heroes.

And in defining the heroes they want to remember, Americans have glossed over the political aspects of both Kennedy’s and McCain’s legacies while simultaneously focusing on the most political aspects of Reagan’s. These meta-narratives formulated by the public transcend questions of truth, party affiliation, or relative extremism.

While Reagan was a positive icon for a more conservative Republican Party, many modern Republicans would deny McCain that same stature. Reagan has been lauded for an adherence to party values so much that his other actions are frequently ignored, whereas McCain is known for what he wasn’t: overly partisan and unwilling to compromise.

These figures develop because our collective narrative allows them to. Reagan continues to be influential as a political icon not because of what he accomplished, but because of what the American people and the Republican Party feel he accomplished. The 2016 presidential election is evidence of this, with Trump reusing Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

Similarly, McCain is lauded today not because of his policies, but because of his most human moments. He represents a type of politician who balances conviction and reflection, who admits fault and strives to compromise.

As Mullins explained, “When people think of an icon, the icon doesn’t necessarily have to resemble who the person was. People are flawed. They’re complicated. When people work to transform a public figure into a symbol, they do so to further their own purposes, whatever they might be. They selectively draw upon aspects of the person’s personal life or career that are beneficial to their agenda and what they are trying to accomplish.” We don’t idolize politicians after they die because of their politics; we revere people. But more than that, we revere the narratives that those people allow us to create.

Recognizing this, some argue that criticizing McCain is warranted, even prudent. Others describe it a cheap shot at best. In reflecting on McCain’s legacy, do Americans have an obligation to revere an American hero or critique a flawed politician? Is McCain’s legacy like that of many other deceased politicians, able to be harnessed to fit a specific narrative? Or should we ditch the generalizations altogether and start seeing McCain for the complicated man he was?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, John McCain is the most recent in a long string of American political heroes around whom American citizens have established ethical values, personal opinions and political strategies. In a tweet on August 24, Jake Tapper from CNN expressed that McCain wanted to be remembered as a man who “served his country and not always right. Made a lot of mistakes. Made a lot of errors, but served his country.

“And I hope we could add honorably.”