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When Sainthood Fails: The Flawed Apotheosis of John McCain

In "April is the cruelest month" forum on April 28, 2019 at 2:44 pm

Few Americans noticed recently when a movement to rename the oldest Senate office building collapsed.. The effort was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer. Driven by what appeared to be uncontainable grief, he tweeted: “Nothing will overcome the loss of Senator McCain; but so that generations remember him I will be introducing a resolution to rename the Russell building after him.” This was, of course, the same Chuck Schumer who previously raged against McCain’s “Five-hundred dollar shoes,” decried his lack of empathy “with the plight of the average person,” and who, during the congressional bail-out mania of 2007, characterized McCain’s suspension of his presidential campaign to resume his senatorial duties as “nothing more than a prolonged photo op” during which, Schumer grumbled, McCain contributed nothing “except for an occasional, unhelpful statement.” Now, gripped by an anguish too painful, apparently, to conceal, Schumer recalled a different John McCain…the saintly McCain—the incomparable statesman whose tragic loss rendered not only Schumer, but every news anchor, politico, editorialist, and show-business personality in America, utterly bereft.

Renaming the building was genius. Republicans would approve because McCain was, after all, a Republican;, and one whose tendency to break ranks with his party seemed oddly representative of the GOP’s weakness for breaking ranks with its electorate. Democrats would approve because McCain’s style of bipartisanship reliably advanced the progressive agenda. Besides, the building in question—an elegant triangular edifice in the Beaux-Arts style—was ripe for a nomenclatural sandblasting, being named for Democratic icon Richard Russell Jr.–a diehard segregationist whose bigoted legislative record recalls a political lineage Democrats prefer nowadays to conceal.

“Ha! Here I stand, while them idiots is out knockin’ over statues of Kate Smith!”

User sabotage–again!

But the impulse died aborning. Schumer’s resolution never gained traction, probably because he never actually bothered introducing it. Ultimately, the only institution to officialize the name change was Google, which impishly contrived to have all searches for the Russell Building return information about “the McCain Senate Office Building,” until the resultant confusion incurred waves of protest, whereupon Google dropped the effort and blamed the matter on “user sabotage.”

The Russell Senate Office Building–briefly renamed by GOOGLE-invading saboteurs.

The principled conservative…

Schumer’s beau geste fizzled for the same reason McCain’s secular sainthood proved ephemeral: The nation’s brief bout of McCain-o-mania sprang from an unholy alliance of  Democratic Leftists, GOP moderates, and disenfranchised conservatives, bound by a common appreciation of McCain’s postmortem utility as a foil to Donald Trump. In life, McCain’s usefulness to liberals stemmed from his fondness for “going maverick,” or rather, for thumbing his nose at his party’s leadership and swerving leftwards. If death lowered the curtain on his legislative rascality, it afforded the Senator a brief afterlife as a makeshift heirogram–an effigy held aloft to rally the righteous and depose the Great Usurper. Saintly McCain became the Anti-Trump—the “principled conservative”–always poised to spring across the aisle to engineer some new compromise thwarting border security, upholding Obamacare, frustrating the Christian Right, advancing Gay marriage, or combating planetary destruction.

One swampy morning….

Nothing says “kumbaya” like a good funeral!

Put another way, McCain was cast as  Ahura Mazda, Trump as Ahriman. The mythic juxtaposition–light versus darkness–was advanced, implicitly or explicitly, in every media treatment of the Senator’s passing. TIME drove the point home for readers too dimwitted to catch on by themselves, explaining that, “While President Donald Trump had been notably excluded from the [funeral service], it was clear many of the speakers — from both political parties — had him on their minds as they mourned McCain, a political giant who died after a brutal fight with brain cancer.” Just as perceptively, if more giddily, The New Yorker described the funeral as “the biggest resistance meeting yet,” noting it “was all about a rebuke to the pointedly uninvited current President of the United States, which was exactly how McCain had planned it.” Absent, apparently, any awareness of paronomasia, The New Yorker nailed the atmospherics, reporting that McCain’s funeral took place on a “swampy Saturday morning.”

As if…

If death made McCain indispensable in the short term, it also ended his usefulness as a walking, talking media prop.  Democrats had no real interest in pursuing the man’s deification, and Republicans sensed the inadvisability of affronting 623 million Trump voters.  Newscasters pivoted from hagiography to slander, professing disbelief that even so infamous a bunch of haters as the political Right would deny John McCain—statesman, war hero, champion of Senatorial outreach—praise on the event of his passing. Anchors frowned over remarks about the Senator that seemed insufficiently fulsome, wondering aloud if they constituted “hate speech.” Even Leftist Kelly Hayes recoiled at the uniform saccharinity, “As if telling the full, truthful story of his life and career were an insult to the senator and his loved ones.” As if, for that matter, the point even required “as if.”

Gregory Green-Ass, the early years….

Granddad, Dad, and Gregory Greenass.

McCain’s family was naval–his father and grandfather both four-star admirals. In keeping with expectations, he entered the Naval Academy, graduating 894th in a class of 899. Proceeding to the Pensacola Naval Air Station McCain quickly earned a reputation as “a sub-par flier” and a partier. By his own admission he “did not enjoy the reputation of a serious pilot or an up-and-coming junior officer.” Barely passing flight school, he crashed two airplanes after graduating, and damaged a third.  In Spain, he attempted to fly his A-1 fighter-bomber between a pair of electrical pylons, hitting one in the process and knocking out power for thousands. In his autobiography he wrote “My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes, and created a small international incident.” Reassigned to a cushy diplomatic post, McCain laudably volunteered for combat in Vietnam. Assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, he flew 23 combat missions over Vietnam, making him a true war hero by any reasonable standard–but 23 missions were far fewer than most pilots aboard the Oriskany had flown, thus McCain was dubbed “Gregory Green-Ass.”

A true war hero with 23 combat missions.

“Jousting with Charlie and… Triple A?”

With the possible exception of the senior Bush, John McCain is the politician most famous for being shot down. During a bombing raid on a North Vietnamese hydroelectric plant, he deviated from tactical convention on approach. “I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers,” he wrote, “…but I was just about to release my bombs…and had I started jinking…I would have never had the time nor, probably, the nerve to go back…” at which point, according to McCain, “I released my bombs, then pulled back the stick….in the instant before my plane reacted, a SAM blew my right wing off.” Except, it didn’t. Other pilots flying the mission unanimously reported anti-aircraft fire, not a surface-to-air missile, blew the the wing off McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk. Why McCain always insisted he was hit by a SAM is perhaps an issue best left to psychoanalysts–but the official Navy report is unambiguous; he was hit by “AAA fire,” not a missile.

An A-4 Skyhawk–with both wings.

Hanoi John

Welcome to North Vietnam!

McCain again flouted protocol bailing out. Pilots were taught a specific procedure for ejecting from a stricken A-4E, but McCain ignored it. As a result, he broke both arms and his right leg even before angry North Vietnamese fished him out of Truc Bach Lake.  This later paid unexpected dividends when voters assumed news footage of the imprisoned McCain hobbling on crutches or trussed up in casts amounted to evidence of torture. In fact, as he concedes in his memoirs, McCain immediately offered information to his captors in exchange for hospitalization. Bad form, but of little practical consequence; even the toughest pilots broke at the “Hanoi Hilton,” and there is no doubt McCain was tortured and beaten, although he later wrote his treatment was “less harsh than might be accorded other prisoners,” because of “the propaganda value the Vietnamese placed on possessing me.”

Mostly self-inflicted.

McCain famously rejected an offer of early release–an offer the communists made because his father was a full admiral. TIME concertized McCain’s version of events, marveling at his decision to choose “prison in Hanoi for years rather than accept a release he considered dishonorable.”  But this story, too, is equivocal.  The senior American POW in Hanoi during McCain’s imprisonment adamantly opposed any American accepting early release, and military code required the ranking officer’s permission. McCain, then, had every reason to suppose his request would be denied.  Obviously, he could have sidestepped regulations and accepted the offer unilaterally—but doing so risked censure and even charges of collaboration down the road. Thus, although the story of McCain refusing early release is true, a dearth of workable options probably shaped his decision.

The Reaganite who schooled Goldwater

“Wait a minute, John–what’s with the hand buzzer?”

Released in keeping with the 1973 peace accords following five-and-a-half years of imprisonment, McCain retired from the Navy in 1981. Moving to Arizona, he ran for congress in 1983, campaigning as a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite. In 1987, he ran for the senate, defeating his Democratic opponent by 20 percentage points. As a freshman senator, McCain resumed his support for the Reagan agenda. He defended “Reaganomics” despite zero grasp of supply-side theory, opposed abortion, voted in defense of school prayer, and appeared every inch the Cold Warrior. Yet, according to McCain, during a private meeting with the retiring Barry Goldwater (whose vacated seat McCain occupied), Goldwater offered, “You know, John, if I’d beaten Lyndon Johnson in ’64, you wouldn’t have spent all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.” McCain recalls quipping, “You’re right, Barry. It would have been a Chinese prison camp.” McCain loved telling the story, and true or not, the anecdote was subtly evocative of a deeper truth: John McCain enjoyed kicking members of his own party in the shins–especially those who represented seniority–or, one might go so far as to say, father figures.

“And anyway, John–why would Taiwan put you in a prison camp?”

When Newt Gingrich’s posse of young conservatives swarmed congress in 1992, McCain applauded their arrival but opted out of Gingrich’s “contract with America.” Instead, he gravitated toward several top Democrats, including Tip O’Neill, Paul Simon, and Mo Udall.  He soon began voicing support for various social programs, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act. The legislation foundered when Republicans, to McCain’s considerable annoyance, took umbrage at several of its zanier entitlements.  Nevertheless, the media praised McCain’s enlightened willingness to join forces with liberals, painting him as a beacon of hope in a GOP too long wedded to grumpy intransigence. The accolades were not lost on McCain.

The reformer….

Nobody at McCain’s farewell service mentioned the Senator’s first association with campaign finance reform, otherwise known as the Keating Hearings. It was 1990, and the Washington Post reported grim news: “The Senate Select Committee on Ethics today will open what are expected to be exhaustive and contentious public hearings in the highly publicized ‘Keating Five’ case…” According to the Post, the hearings promised “a rare tour of the netherworld of campaign fund-raising and its impact on Washington’s official business.” Of the five, the only accused Republican was John McCain, whose earliest associations with campaign finance cast him as a poster child for its abuse. Accused of inappropriately intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, a major campaign donor, McCain took a beating in the press, but avoided more serious consequences by agreeing to confess poor judgement.

Approaching the nominative contest of 2000, McCain recast himself as a campaign reformer par excellence.  Crossing the aisle in search of allies, he found a ready accomplice in Russ Feingold, (D-WI). While McCain thundered demands for action, Feingold’s staff crafted legislation. One telltale indicator of the bill’s toxicity was the selection of its co-sponsors as recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. McCain, of course, was the real point of the conferral. The bizarre idea that collaborating with liberals constituted heroism precisely fit the establishment’s long-maintained flimflam that joining it demands guts.

McCain always considered the act among his proudest achievements. In reality, it not only subjected political campaigns to a host of big-government intrusions, but also increased the media’s power to sway elections. The Heritage Foundation called it “wrongheaded and unconstitutional.” Even the Washington Post disapproved, noting that “…perversely, the ban on ‘soft money’ left individual and corporate donors free to direct their funds to outside groups, where donations are concealed from public scrutiny.” In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down the act’s more odoriferous sections, ruling that, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The Left howled indignantly, as did McCain, as did President Obama, who managed to cram “Big Oil” “Wall Street Banks” and “Health insurers” into a single denunciatory sentence.  (READ MORE)

Standing tall against Big Oil!

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