John McCain’s last stand

John McCain ended his career in his inimitable fashion. 

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When you first meet John McCain, where he has been and what he has done are more clearly evident than in any other politician I’ve ever met. There’s the glint of mischief in his eye, the slightly reptilian curl of his lip when he’s about to give you some of his trademark “straight talk”. The skin is as rough as an old lizard and he’s built from the same ball of gristle as a good scrum half. The overall effect is one of contrarian decency, leavened with just enough self-regard to get along.

Whenever I think of McCain, I think of his presidential campaign plane after the Florida primary of 2008, the contest that effectively secured him the Republican Party nomination. He was relaxed, grinning, wisecracking with reporters. Then he drank a coffee. McCain gripped the cup, uneasily, in both hands and tilted it as best he could towards his mouth, his whole body leaning back to get the right angle. It was like watching a Tyrannosaurus rex, with its tiny arms, try to eat a doughnut. McCain, you see, cannot lift his hands above elbow height because of the torture he endured during the Vietnam War.

The facts are well known. A naval aviator, he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, then after months in captivity was offered release from the living hell of the “Hanoi Hilton” prison because he was the son of an admiral. McCain refused to leave until all those who had been in captivity longer were sent home. That was the code. He spent five more years behind bars, brutalised until he signed a confession admitting that he was a war criminal. The effects of having your arms repeatedly broken are not abstract. They’ve shaped McCain’s life ever since and in large part his approach to politics too.

McCain is 81 now and fighting a battle even he expects soon to lose to stage four brain cancer. But as his new memoir attests, he is going down fighting. The book is a paean both to the kind of America he thought he was serving in uniform and the moderate brand of politics he has represented in his four decades as a senator from Arizona and in the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008.

Underneath all that, The Restless Wave – a valedictory memoir whose title encapsulates McCain’s family naval tradition and his impatience with the paralysis of Washington – is also a rebuke to the politics ushered in by Donald Trump. In the long list of the 45th president’s unpleasant public statements, his comment on McCain – “He’s not a war hero. I like people who weren’t captured” – ranks high in the league table of infamy. While McCain’s body was being broken in the Hanoi Hilton, Trump was dodging the draft with a medical deferment.

Revenge came cold and hard at Trump in July last year when McCain, his face still bloodied from a biopsy, emerged from hospital to cast the deciding vote to prevent the Republican repeal of healthcare reforms introduced by Barack Obama, the man who defeated him in the 2008 election. It was classic McCain, principled and obstreperous. But, as he admits in the book, it was also exquisite political theatre: “Reporters pressed me for my decision, and I offered a smartass remark, ‘Wait for the show.’ ”

The dish is served again in The Restless Wave, which is not a full-blown autobiography but rather a memoir of the last 12 years or so, encompassing his second presidential run, the military surge in Iraq, immigration, healthcare, the threat from Russia, fake news and Trump.

McCain gleefully admits that it was him who passed the dossier compiled on Trump by the former British spy Christopher Steele to James Comey, the then boss of the FBI, which triggered the probe into alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian state. “I did what duty demanded I do,” he says. “Anyone who doesn’t like it can go to hell.” McCain says of Trump: “His reaction to unflattering news stories, calling them ‘fake news’ whether they’re credible or not, is copied by autocrats who want to discredit and control a free press.”

A longstanding advocate of immigration reform and tolerance for children born to illegal immigrants, McCain says his own party is on the “wrong side” of history and slams Trump’s approach to migrants: “The way he speaks about them is appalling, as if welfare or terrorism were the only purposes they could have in coming to our country.” By contrast, during the 2008 campaign McCain famously intervened on one woman who called Obama an Arab: “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man and citizen whom I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Here, McCain revels in his cross-party friendship with Senator Ted Kennedy, who succumbed to the same strain of brain cancer in 2009. As he puts it: “Ted and I shared the conviction that a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.”

As McCain wryly observes, that approach led one Republican to attack him by labelling him a “champion of compromise”. He writes: “You’re damn right, I’m a champion of compromise in the governance of a country of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls.”

McCain’s genius was to become a Washington lifer while remaining an outsider when it suited him, at once a bipartisan conciliator and a firebrand prepared to take unpopular stances because he believed in them. The desire of some politicians to play the role of rock chucker can strain after a while, but McCain is refreshingly clear-eyed about his own faults: “I have to watch myself and not appear smug when I’m offering a hard truth. I can seem to enjoy being impolitic.”

Yet this approach is one that many will admire and it made him the darling of the Washington press corps (until Obama came along). I must confess it is an affection I share. On each occasion I got close to him, he took my question, despite there not being many votes in it. What’s more he listened and sought to answer it. Let’s just say that has not been my experience covering Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

I think too of a boozy party in the Beverly Hilton hotel after a Republican debate. McCain was packed off to bed around midnight, as his friends and drinking companions shared endless stories with reporters, the exact details of which are buried forever somewhere at the bottom of the third bottle of wine. In so far as politicians can be normal, McCain is such a creature.

Also there that night was Mark Salter, a mordant and sober phrasemaker and self-appointed keeper of the McCain political flame, who has co-written seven of his books. Here he contributes prose that is sometimes sparely elegant and mostly stays the right side of self-righteous.

If this troublesome maverick is appealing to New Statesman readers, there is much in The Restless Wave that they may also find uncomfortable: in McCain’s continuing fervid belief in Western military intervention, his overt taste for patriotic tropes and near-religious faith in American exceptionalism. Yet he is not without self-reproach here as well. A cheerleader for the Iraq War, he admits “I have to accept my share of the blame” now that the war “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake”. Most of the opprobrium he directs at Donald Rumsfeld. “We had gone into Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction,” McCain writes. “Bad tactics, a flawed strategy, and bad leadership in the highest ranks of uniformed and civilian defence leadership had allowed violent forces unleashed by Saddam’s destruction to turn Iraq into hell on earth.” These are franker words than Tony Blair mustered in his memoir.

If McCain was partly culpable for the stampede to war, his determination to oppose the use of torture during the prosecution of the war on terror has stood the test of time. “My captors had, on the whole, treated prisoners more humanely than the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib treated prisoners,” he writes.

This is again a rebuke to Trump, who has supported the return of “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” and pushed through – against McCain’s outspoken opposition – the appointment of the new CIA director Gina Haspel, who was up to her neck in “enhanced interrogation”. A White House aide recently dismissed McCain’s views with the observation that they didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway”.

If McCain finds serial fault with Trump, he perhaps does not do enough to confront his own responsibility for fuelling the nativist forces that made Trumpism possible when he selected the gun-toting populist Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee. At first the selection seemed inspired. Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention was genuinely accomplished, teasing Barack Obama in ways none of his rivals had yet managed. McCain’s crowds, regularly around 600, jumped immediately to more than 10,000. I still remain convinced that she won him more votes than she lost him despite a series of interviews that exposed her skin-deep comprehension of even basic issues.

McCain remains gracious about all this. “Those missteps are on me,” he writes. “She didn’t put herself on the ticket. I did.” He admits that he wanted to pick Joe Lieberman, the Democrat turned independent senator, and was talked out of it for fear of splitting the Republican Party: “It was sound advice… but my gut told me to ignore it, and I wish I had.”

But the Palin pick also legitimised a strain in Republican politics which Trump was able to exploit eight years later. I remember the crowds at a Palin rally in a Rust Belt state, jostling the press pen in an early example of public rage at the mainstream media, while a woman clutching a small child screamed spit-flecked rage at Barack Obama into my face: “He’s a terrorist! He’s a terrorist!”

Yet McCain can hardly be blamed for Trump’s approach. One of the most powerful chapters is on Russia: McCain believes the White House has adopted a pusillanimous position. “Vladimir Putin is an evil man” in charge of a “gangster regime”, McCain writes. Trump, he says, “seems to vary from refusing to believe what Putin is doing to just not caring about it”. By contrast, McCain says: “I hate Putin. I make no bones about it… He is intent on evil deeds, which include the destruction of the liberal world order, its values and its institutions. The world order that the United States of America led and defended all my lifetime.”

And this is the crux of the whole book. The Restless Wave is poignant, not just because it is McCain’s last political will and testament, but because much of what he stands for has already received the last rites in American public life.

He quotes a letter he received from an Army captain: “I would rather die fighting than give up the smallest part of the idea that is America.” To McCain the idea of America is: “The land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centred youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, where you can go from aimless rebellion to noble cause, and from bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”

America may be exceptional in his mind, but it is not perfect. He goes on: “We have made mistakes. We haven’t always used our power wisely. We have abused it sometimes and been arrogant. But, as often as not, we recognised those wrongs, debated them openly, and tried to do better.”

To some ears this will be a hackneyed elegy for a militarism that has caused great harm, but it is hard not to conclude that it takes on a new grandeur with every debased tweet emanating from the Oval Office.

McCain might rank America first among nations, but he disapproves of Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine. “To refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic,” he writes.

This is not just a book that offers a vision of how politics might be done differently, it is essentially a blueprint for how to live a life well. McCain is near the end of his, but you believe him when he writes “I have loved my life. I had difficult moments and a few disappointments. But, by God, I enjoyed it. Every damn day of it. I have lived with a will. I have served a purpose greater than my own pleasure or advantage, but I meant to enjoy the experience, and I did.”

I’ve seen better speakers, cleverer strategists, more charismatic performers, but in no other politician have I felt that I was in the presence of someone who had lived quite as well as John McCain. Early in the book McCain imparts the last words his grandfather told his father: “Son, there is no greater thing than to die for the country and principles that you believe in.”

You may not have liked everything John McCain did when he was alive, but you sense his death will mark more than the passing of a man, but of a set of principles that will rightly be missed. 

Tim Shipman is political editor of the Sunday Times and author of “Fall Out: a Year of Political Mayhem” (William Collins)

The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations
John McCain with Mark Salter
Simon & Schuster, 416pp, £25

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman