We are mourning U.S. Sen. John McCain this week — most of us, at least — and well we should. But what exactly are we mourning? Why do we feel a sense of loss?
It’s not that McCain’s politics were universally popular; far from it. Democrats enjoyed his bouts of rebelliousness, but he was never really on their side; he was always a conservative and a hawk. Many Republicans distrusted him; by the end of his life, his party’s pro-Trump base considered him an apostate.
Nor is it the record of bipartisan legislation he leaves; that record is, in fact, rather thin. His most important achievement, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court. Most of his other projects, like immigration reform, ended in failure.
An easy answer is that McCain, who died on Saturday, is an object of reverence for his personal courage, which was considerable when he exerted it, and for his old-fashioned civility in political battle. His concession speech to Barack Obama at the end of the nasty 2008 presidential campaign — “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country. … [He] will be my president” — was a model of grace amid disappointment.
But plenty of politicians, even in the age of President Donald Trump, still manage to behave civilly toward their opponents. McCain was more complicated and more interesting.
What distinguished the Arizonan most was his adherence, worn on his sleeve, to a rigorous code of honor inherited from his father and grandfather, both decorated Navy admirals — combined with his recurring habit of falling short of his own standards and reproaching himself for his failings in public.
Nearly all politicians cut corners on their way to the top. Few of them apologize when they do. (The current president of the United States, who loathed McCain, never apologizes for anything.) None, at least none in recent memory, ever apologized as fully and relentlessly as McCain.
All honest politicians hate the squalid little trade-offs that politics demands — the favors, the compromises, the truckling to campaign donors. But most of them express their distress in private. McCain felt compelled to express his in public.
In his 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, for instance, McCain faced a difficult choice in South Carolina. Demands were rising to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, and McCain’s first instinct was to agree: “It’s a symbol of racism and slavery,” he said. But after aides told him his position, however admirable, would lose him the state’s primary, he backed off, saying he “understood both sides.”
Months later, after losing, McCain returned to the state to confess his error. “I chose to compromise my principles,” he said. “I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”
In a later memoir, he was even tougher on himself: “I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interest from my country’s. That was what made the lie unforgivable.”
That was McCain’s most oddly attractive characteristic: He hated hypocrisy — especially if he was the one practicing it.
It was attractive because it conveyed a larger lesson. In his life and in his words, McCain preached that every American should try to meet the highest standards of honor and valor — but he recognized that no one will always succeed, including himself. The test of character, he argued, was whether you owned up to your errors and used them to spur yourself to do better.
No wonder he found himself in bitter opposition to Trump, an ersatz conservative opportunist whose standards of honor and valor have proved undetectable.
McCain became the de facto leader of the GOP opposition to Trump in the Senate, more willing to speak bluntly on a larger range of the president’s offenses against decency and good government than any of his colleagues.
He warned the president against cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“a thug”), criticized Trump’s order banning U.S. entry to people from seven mostly Muslim countries (“harmful”) and denounced his proposal to tax imports from Mexico (“insane”).
A year ago, McCain cast one of the decisive dissenting votes against his party’s attempt to repeal Obama’s health care law — not because he wanted to keep the law (he didn’t), but because he considered the bill Trump was pushing hopelessly inadequate. The president never forgave him.
And only a few weeks ago, after Trump praised Putin at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, McCain unloaded again.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he said.
That was McCain at his best.
After his cancer diagnosis, McCain wrote in his recent memoir that because his career was nearing its end, “I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again. I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much. And I can vote my conscience without worry.”
Have three sadder sentences ever been written about American politics?
Alas, that fully liberated version of McCain was free only for the final 20 months of his career. We are the poorer for that — and that is what we mourn.