You’d have to be living on another planet not to know that John McCain, six-term senator from Arizona, died of brain cancer over the weekend. Since then, the 24-hour news cycle has been filled with gauzy, breathless, and teary remembrances of a man who is being hailed as a “war hero,” a “maverick,” an “icon,” a man of “integrity,” a “lion of the Senate” who “crossed the aisle” to work with both Democrats and Republicans. In an era of paralyzing partisanship, the “larger-than-life” McCain is viewed, by many, as “the last of a dying breed.” (In a striking instance of historical serendipity, Senator McCain died nine years to the day after the death by the same disease of my late senator, Ted Kennedy.) These are perilous times, of course, and people often search desperately for heroes when hope is under siege. But John McCain is not the hero we should be looking for.
Upon hearing the news of his passing, I went to post something on Facebook, as this age of social media seems to require of us, regardless of whether we have anything at all to say or whether anyone at all is waiting for us to say it. I wrote several things, then deleted them all, and was left with just this: “I’m not sure what to say, frankly. Lots of competing thoughts and emotions about this news. Just this for now: rest in peace, Senator.” As lackluster as my post was, I meant every word. I wasn’t sure what to say. I do have competing thoughts and emotions. And I do hope the senator rests in peace. I don’t take any of that back. But there is obviously much more to say.
John McCain deserves a substantive reckoning, beyond the endlessly hagiographic (and even nasty kneejerk) reactions on record since his death. It is an undeniable fact that McCain has been one of the most dominant and consequential figures in modern US politics. No doubt this is why his congressional colleagues have decided that he will be the 32nd person in the nation’s history to lie in state at the US Capitol before his funeral in Washington, DC, and burial at Annapolis next weekend. I can scarcely remember a time in the last 30 years—from the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s to his two presidential bids, in 2000 and 2008—when he wasn’t a major player on the national stage. He was certainly a devoted public servant, in his own way of defining service to a nation he clearly loved (that, too, is hard to deny). And I take that seriously, as someone who also tries to be of service to society, albeit in a very different way. As a human-rights advocate, I honor the courage and tenacity he displayed as a tortured prisoner of war, even as I will never honor the war in which he flew bombing missions as a naval aviator. I admire his personal and political opposition to the Bush-Cheney regime’s indefensible use of torture tactics in the so-called “War on Terror,” even as I will never abide or excuse his vocal support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his ongoing advocacy for the so-called “surge” and liberal use of drones during the Obama presidency. Even as I understand why some of my friends and family members and students have, like McCain, chosen to serve in the military, I will never accept the term “war hero”—war being one of our chronic national addictions, and “hero” being one of the most overused words in our vocabulary. I say this as the grandson of two men who fought in US-led wars in the middle of the last century, as the brother and husband of two men whose fathers also fought in Vietnam, and as the friend of men and women who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have seen firsthand how wars can ruin people, physically and psychologically, and how this has pernicious ripple effects across generations. There is nothing “heroic” about war, especially wars led by the United States, even the so-called “great” ones. (I have written about these matters before, here and here, in these very pages.) These are just some of the reasons why I’m a pacifist.
That said, I believe deep in my bones that death—moments of passing on—should be marked in a serious way. Over the years, I have become my family’s eulogist; I have honored the passing of, among others, my two grandfathers, who, much like John McCain, were complex men about whom I have complex thoughts and feelings. Death, like birth, is a singular moment, where our humanity, however complex, deserves acknowledgment. But unlike birth, when we are new and innocent, death carries more baggage. This became clear to me when I carried the burden of giving eulogies for my grandfathers, ordinary folks from immigrant stock, both poor, who genuinely believed that war would earn them a better station in the United States. (They were mostly right—in part, because they were white.) John McCain is not either of my grandfathers. He was a privileged man who lived a powerful life. Even his mythic refusal to be released from the “Hanoi Hilton” is inscribed by privilege: He could have used his connections to secure his release, but he did not. This is indeed a praiseworthy thing, a proper use of privilege; I am loath to second-guess it now, even as I can’t help but wonder just how many people the future senator killed with those bombs before being shot down, imprisoned, and tortured by his captors. I’m an historian, so I feel compelled, on the occasion of his passing, to respect the best of John McCain while also reckoning with the rest of John McCain. Death is one of those moments where legacies are made, where memories are shaped, and men of outsize power and privilege require a full reckoning, regardless of whether criticism is considered “bad timing” or “disrespectful.” Since his death, I’ve heard many a McCain mourner caution critics like me to “sit down” or “stay silent”; in these calls, I can’t help but hear the echoes of those who claim that dissenters are “unpatriotic,” a sophistry I will always reject. Especially where powerful men are concerned, too many of us are quick to disregard the past and deify the dead, ignoring the more complex truths of how they actually lived their lives. (I can’t help but think of Ronald Reagan, one of John McCain’s “heroes” and the beneficiary of one of the biggest hagiographic whitewashings in US history.) But we earn our death with our life, and the longer our lives, the more complicated our deaths become. In this sense, things like “honor” and “respect” are predetermined—not by God or those who remain, but by the dead themselves before they leave us.
Truth be told, John McCain lived a very complicated life. I have already addressed his enthusiasm for war and the mythologies he and others have eagerly crafted to justify US imperialism over the last half-century—including the Republican and Democratic presidents he ran against in 2000 and 2008, who we now know are his handpicked eulogists. But I can’t get out of my head the fact that John McCain is also the person who gave us Sarah Palin, founding “hockey mom” of the Tea Party, a decision he and his campaign handlers have since claimed to regret. This is no minor matter. McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate was a hasty, cynical, and desperate media move, designed to alter the political dynamics of a presidential race that was slipping away from him at the time. It also unleashed the fresh hell of white grievance and xenophobic racism that brought us Donald Trump. In the last two years, McCain has been widely celebrated as a “true patriot,” always the “maverick,” a striking (and admittedly rare) Republican antidote to Trump and Trumpism. But less than a decade ago, he was fully complicit—there is no way to sugarcoat or euphemize this—in Palin and Palinism, which is the immediate antecedent to the current national nightmare in which we all find ourselves. I can’t imagine that Trump, standing idly by watching Fox News back in the day, wasn’t emboldened by the obvious and odious prospect of Palin’s popularity. In real ways, like an arsonist who is also a firefighter, McCain helped to create the political crisis in which he himself emerged as a latter-day “hero.” This is a performance worthy of Shakespeare—tragedy, not comedy. And let us not forget that John McCain, newly elected to Congress in 1983, voted against legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday, an act of cowardice he would later regret, along with his failure to condemn the Confederate flag during the South Carolina primary in 2000. His capitulation to racists—the worst devils of our nation—goes back decades.
I have been struck in recent days by how many people, from across the political spectrum, have shared or referred to the now-famous video from a McCain campaign town hall in 2008. In it, the candidate grabs the microphone from an old white woman who said that she couldn’t “trust” Barack Obama, then his political opponent, because “he’s an Arab.” (In retrospect, we can view this as early evidence of the fertile Palin-planted soil in which Trump’s birtherism bloomed.) McCain’s response, now well known, was to say that Obama was a “decent family man” and a “citizen.” As someone who regularly speaks in public, often in very contentious contexts, I am willing to give McCain some benefit of the doubt with respect to intention: He was clearly bothered by this sad old white woman’s racist assertion. But I won’t give him a pass. Sometimes spontaneity reveals more troubling truths about our humanity. Indeed, the irony of that moment is that he had to reject the very prejudices that his running mate—and he, by extension—had been ginning up from at least as far back as the moment she was chosen. And regardless of McCain’s intent, the impact of his response—to simply deny that Obama is “Arab” rather than fully denouncing the woman’s prejudices against Arabs—was something altogether different. For Arab and Muslim folks who have been increasingly under siege since 9/11—due in large part to two wars in the Middle East that McCain enthusiastically supported (and Obama continued)—this comment was yet another moment of marginalization, an expression of a pernicious kind of respectability politics that masks deeper prejudices. I find it more than interesting that that moment is being read, in this moment, as a sign of John McCain’s personal integrity rather than his political inadequacy.
What makes John McCain’s passing more complicated for me—and this will probably upset some of my friends on the left—is that we need more Republicans to be like John McCain. (Let me be clear: I did not say we need more Republicans, unless they come resurrected in the ancient forms of Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens.) As accountable as I will always hold McCain (and others) for these unjust wars, and this nasty era of Palinism and Trumpism, I will always remember the concession speech he gave on election night in 2008, where he seemed to finally understand—and articulate and accept—that the country had chosen a more hopeful and historic way forward from its hateful history. (I always scoffed at the “Country First” tagline, but that was one moment where I believed he really meant it.) I welcomed McCain’s bipartisan efforts with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform, and I will never forget his dramatic, late-night “thumbs down” moment, when he voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which was both a belated act of respect for President Obama and a bold rejection of President Trump (it was also a legacy play, but I don’t fault him for that now). His last major speech on the Senate floor was a clarion call for a different kind of partisan politics, one that anyone who takes electoral politics seriously, as I still do, can listen to and respect. I also love—genuinely love—that he reserved one of his dying breaths to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t attend or speak at his funeral. And he fought his cancer hard. He had the best health care in the nation, of course, but I wouldn’t wish cancer on my worst enemy, and John McCain was hardly that. Our humanity is also revealed in the moments leading up to death, as we face imminent mortality, and so far as we can tell, these brought out the best in him.
Rest in peace, Senator. Every one of us deserves that—in life as much as in death.