The John McCain Character Test

John McCain

Author’s Note: Sen. John McCain passed away on August 25th, after the original posting of this article. He was 81.

Arizona Senator John McCain, after battling brain cancer for over a year and at age 81, has released a statement that he will no longer seek medical treatment for his illness.

“Last summer, Senator John McCain shared with Americans the news our family already knew: he had been diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma, and the prognosis was serious,” McCain’s family said in a statement. “In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival.”

“But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict,” the family statement continued. “With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment. Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection from John’s many friends and associates, and the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers. God bless and thank you all.”

From being the son and grandson of legendary naval admirals, to an officer and war hero in his own right, to three decades in the US Senate representing Arizona, John McCain’s bio is very full. There is also a long history of contentious politics, personality traits, personal issues, and very public moments. The Senator has spent more of his life in the public spotlight than not, and his daughter Meghan’s high-profile in media daily on The View continues such notice.

Especially in the social media age, John McCain has been a lightening rod of differing opinion. His very public battles with President Trump in recent memory, and his “maverick” habit of crossing the aisle and criticizing his own party frequently, cause many to have strong opinions. John McCain’s 60 years of public service will leave a long and complex legacy that historians, pundits, and people can pick over and interpret for years to come.

But today, and in what appears to be the decreasing number days left for John McCain, that shouldn’t matter all that much.

Before all the other descriptors and honorifics, John McCain is a man. Like all men, no matter those titles and accomplishments, death comes and is no regarder of person. He has a family that loves him, and is no doubt trying to cherish the small hours during this difficult time.

John McCain’s legacy, good, bad, and indifferent, is now set. His character is known by a long and very public life and established history.

What isn’t established is how we conduct ourselves about it on social media and elsewhere. There is a time and place for political and personal criticism, sometimes very harsh criticism, and John McCain was no shrinking violet over the course of his career. But today and the days to come are not time for that. We do not have to exaggerate or lie about the greatness of a dying man, nor do so at his funeral and memorials as is often the case. But we can show dignity and grace for a human being that is at the end, and honor a life of service to his country even if we don’t agree with every detail of that service. We can support the family with thoughts, prayers, and a bit of restraint and dignity online and elsewhere.

John McCain himself seems to be good with this level approach, as quoted by Jake Tapper:

We can honor John McCain-the veteran, the senator, the man-on whatever level you like. But politically or personally motivated vitriol is a failure of character on the part of the one spewing it, and has no effect on John McCain one way or the other. Let history, and our opining, wait a while.

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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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28 thoughts on “The John McCain Character Test

  1. I was a big fan of McCain in his 2000 campaign and had my heart broken when he dropped out of the race. My relationship with him became more complicated when he ran in 2008 but I will still be sorry to see him go. We need more men like him in the government.

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  2. I’ve no need to wait until he’s gone, and on the trivially small chance that he reads these remarks they may do him some good while he’s still here.

    Whatever disagreements I might have with him on a political level, whatever reputation for irascibility he may have acquired on The Hill, whatever his personal faults…

    He’s earned my respect and admiration as a politician, a military man, and an American. Would that we had more like him, now and in the future.

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  3. Here’s a relevant section from Slate Star Codex’s “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.”

    The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.

    I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:

    I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the “intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.

    This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.

    And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.

    Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

    I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

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  4. > John McCain’s legacy, good, bad, and indifferent, is now set. His character is known by a long and very public life and established history.

    From 1987 to 2015, McCain voted with the Republican Party 87 percent of the time on party-line votes. Not much of a maverick nor independent thinker. Established history, not media hype.

    He folded faster than Superman on laundry day in 2000 when the specter of a non-white illegitimate child loomed over the primaries in South Carolina. A man of character would’ve owned up to it, whether at the time of conception or the time he was called out by opponents.

    More recently, McCain voted in line with the POTUS more often than not. So much for him being adversarial to the President’s politics.

    At best, McCain is loyal. To his party. But principled? Yes, if the causes are conservative. As for the American people, he’s just another politician trying to stay in Washington rather than changing the world.

    I don’t like the guy but I don’t wish death on him, before nor after his diagnosis. Folks need to take off the veteran-colored glasses, tinted with the tragedy, and stop trying to shame people who continue to point out McCain’s not all ponies and kittens.

    An aside, and similarly disgusting, are liberals blindly celebrating McCain. If they always thought he was the bee’s knees, how come they didn’t give McCain a landslide victory in ’08? Then again, how bright can someone be if they get their information through celebrities retweeting news on Twitter?

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  5. I have a very strong dissent here. Does anyone remember that in the 1990s McCain went around telling this “joke” at Republican fundraisers?

    “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”

    What outstanding character we have there, making fun of a child. I don’t know how or why the media started labeling John McCain as a very serious man of integrity or fortitude or character. I don’t know how or why we decided to go along with it. But I think these performative dances and pompous declarations of tests of character are to our detriment.

    McCain had some good ideas. McCain-Feingold was good but he was not a saint to be put on a pillar. I think there is a pernicious lie that we like to tell ourselves regarding politics and that is that deep down we all want the same things but have different ways of getting there. I don’t think this is true at all. But we want it to be true and we falsely elevate some people up for maverick status despite all evidence otherwise.

    If this means you think I failed a test of character, so be it.

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    • I remember that joke. And other very unflattering tidbits about him. I’m not a big fan.
      But I also respect and acknowledge his service and his stronger attributes. On the occasion of his death, I focus on the redeemable.

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    • No, not at all. The idea of the piece is the folks that just rejoice in the death of the man over whatever their pet politics or issue is. The purpose is not to canonize a complicated legacy like McCains. You lay out a reasoned position based on things that happened, and judge the man accordingly. That is how it should be.

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      • @em-carpenter

        Perhaps so but I have become deeply cynical over the past few years and I can’t help thinking that there is an ulterior motive to these performstive dances. A large part of the ulterior motives is to clamp down on the discontents and dissenters for the age.

        Like many people of my political affiliation, I feel like we live in an age of deep income and wealth economy and I am someone who is doing pretty well! Yet even I can see that there is spiraling inequality that is only getting worse. I also feel like there is an elite chattering class of people whom see politics and policy as more of a thing for whom politics is a game. Mainly because they will never suffer adverse consequences. This group might be pro-choice for example but will pretend that Brett Kavanaugh won’t gut Roe because their access to abortion is never going to be in doubt.

        I can’t remember the name but a book came out recently about this class of the elite. They are the Aspen and Davos set and they will do anything to reduce income and wealth inequality except the things that will reduce income and wealth inequality because actual policies that help hurt their prerogatives and privileges. But maybe a performative dance requirement can keep the discontents at bay or outside the fortress they have erected.

        So when I read all the insiders making statements about how criticizing McCain is s failure of character, it makes me wonder how sincere they are or if it is just a hurdle against the dissenters to their status.

        I get why people dislike Gawker and Splinter. They can be abrasive and writers like Hamilton Nolan can have a self-righteous streak too. I can often be turned off by his tone. At the same time their absolute refusal to do performative dances is refreshing.

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        • Again, just to clarify, my point of the piece was not canonizing or specifically insisting we should laud McCain in particular (note it was written before he died on Sat). My idea here was how people react and politicize something like a death based on their filters, and that the political filter needs to be turned down when it comes to things like death, in my opinion. To me, using someone’s pending death and protracted illness is something that we can make a basis of judgement on how they conduct themselves. Death is the commonality of all mankind, and we should be able to treat it with some shared humanity.

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          • I’m torn here.

            I share a lot of ‘s policy preferences and partisanship, and I definitely think he’s partly right about the idea that demands for civility, especially as extended to high profile elected officials like McCain, can come across as hypocritical, and designed to chill dissent.

            And that doesn’t really change all that much after someone dies. The argument for being more civil and forgiving is stronger on the merits, I think, but it doesn’t mean it stops being used in disreputable ways by disreputable people.

            But I also think it’s not coincidental at all that Trump is (sigh, of course) being a petty jerk about McCain’s death, and that “acolytization” (sorry) you were writing about last week has been running alongside a process where old pieties and norms fall by the wayside. It makes me think that maybe there’s something worth holding onto here.

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    • I respect Senator McCain, not for being perfect, but for dedicating himself to a life of public service, for withstanding public scrutiny at the highest level and for spending a career trying to find compromise. He never hid his opinions behind an alias and there is something to be admired there. The man forgave his captors for years of torture, and even in death you’re still blame him for a joke told in poor taste.


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  6. Appealing to the better angels of our nature:

    “John McCain and i were members of different generations, came from completely different backgrounds, and competed at the highest level of politics. But we shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher-the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed. We saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.

    “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt. Michelle and I send our heartfelt condolences to Cindy and their family.”

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