Remembering John McCain

Malcolm Durfee O'Brien, Managing Editor

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On August 25th, Senator John McCain of Arizona died of the brain tumor he had been battling for a year. Behind him he leaves a legacy of struggle, success, and error. He also leaves behind a Congress comprised of a batch of political lightweights and hacks who concern themselves with ideological culture wars than the matter of governing the nation. The failure of democracy begins when the people begin to view their government as an alien force, rather than an extension of itself. No man understood this better than John McCain, as we look back through his legacy, we see a man waging a losing war against a fall to fear-ridden hatred. 

McCain was born in 1936 to a Navy Admiral in what was the strongest symbol of American economic power, the Panama Canal Zone. He, of course, would join the navy as a cocky, arrogant fool, be shot down and tortured for years on end as a prisoner in Vietnam, and learn the meaning of freedom and of the ideas of the warrior’s code of honor. He learned respect and gained his sense of humor and his sense of righteousness while he was tortured in Vietnam. Soon after his return from captivity, he became the Naval liaison officer in the US Senate, befriending heavyweight Senators like Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy. He was elected to the House in 1982, this is where his legacy begins. 

Congress in 1982 was a different place than it is today, Democrats had controlled it since 1954, southern states were still dominated by “yellow-dog Democrats,” and the northern states were dominated by old school liberal Republicans. In this era, it was uncommon for passed bills to not have a level of bipartisan support, whether they be as conservative as tax reform or as liberal as a civil rights act. In addition, partisan differences didn’t affect the way Congressmen treated or viewed each other, sure they would give sly remarks about the party from across the aisle, but it was a place of joking love rather than hateful attack. It was in this environment McCain learned to legislate and how to apply his warrior’s code ethics to legislating. This is why he adored working across the aisle on issues. John McCain’s code of ethics is lacking in today’s House. Passed bills almost never have bipartisan support, not only does the party of another member affect the way members of the opposition treat or view them, it is virtually the only requisite for judgement by the other party.  

In 1986, McCain was elected to the United States Senate, succeeding the man who birthed the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater. Going into the ‘90s, he was a fairly mainstream conservative Senator with Presidential ambitions. Then came Newt Gingrich, who created the concept in America of an “opposition party” as a party which refuses to work with the President on any issues, then came the order to stop sitting with Democratic Senators because it “looked bad.” In this partisan-ized environment is where the maverick is born, he begins to regularly buck his own party, backing the line item veto, voting to confirm both of Clinton’s supreme court nominees, became an advocate for closing the gun show loophole amongst other moderate gun control measures and, perhaps most importantly, not only supporting, but becoming a champion of campaign finance reform with ultra-liberal Russ Feingold. All of this was used against him when he ran for President in 2000. He probably would have been the Republican nominee had it not been for this streak. He probably would have been President had he not bucked his party. This is part of the problems facing America, unlike McCain, who put values above ambition, every member of Congress puts political power first, this is why we see such divide in this country, they will take advantage of whatever bull-brained proposal or fear to split the electorate and keep their seats. The fear they use takes many forms, for Obama it was accusations of being a Muslim, for the progressive movement it’s accusations of pushing a socialist agenda. 

In 2008, McCain was nominated for President as the only properly functioning adult running for President as a Republican. By most accounts, his campaign was an extremely unpleasant experience. John McCain wasn’t too keen on getting pushed around, but as a nominee of a major political party, that’s all that really happens. His first choice of running mate, Joe Lieberman was rejected by the party for being pro-choice, the initial obvious replacement, Governor Tim Pawlenty was ruled too boring by the Party, and Sarah Palin was essentially forced on him. Throughout the campaign, he was forced further and further from his ideals, with the real him only showing on brief occasions, like the Al Smith Dinner and his concession speech. After his defeat and Mitch McConnell’s treatise that the Republicans would force Obama out of office and a challenge to him from the far-right in the 2010 Republican primary for the US Senate in Arizona, he saw the complete death of political decency from his own party, who then nominated a man who had attacked him on multiple occasions in 2016. In 2017, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer, the same that had killed his friend, Ted Kennedy. In the environment of Trump division and with nothing left to fear, the maverick returned anew, voting against his party on healthcare reform multiple times for their failure to transition from campaigning to governing and demanding that they start doing work. He continued this firebrand criticism of partisanship as long as he could, soon his cancer forced him away from the Senate, and effectively sidelined him as a foil to Trump. Eventually, of course, he succumbed to the disease. 

The Congress that birthed his nonpartisan ideology is dead. Because of demands created by McConnell, Gingrich and Senator Harry Reid, ideologues like them are what are elected to the House, not McCains. Democrats have been pushed far to the left by ultra “progressives” who are more concerned about scoring political points than governing, Republicans have been pushed far to the right by tea-party “activists,” who seem more like talk show pundits than elected officials. Between these two pushes to extremism, a John McCain cannot win. Moderates are attacked as either “RINOs” by Republicans or “corporate Democrats” by Democrats. We must fight for McCain’s legacy and push for people who will govern rather than people who will divide. 

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