F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about no second acts in American life is only partially true. There are second acts, but those that fail to live up to the promise of the first are far more interesting. An assessment of John McCain’s political career suggests that the Senator from Arizona squandered the immense capital of his five and a half years of bravery and integrity while a captive in Viet Nam.
McCain’s earlier career reminds one of George Armstrong Custer, another “maverick” whose reckless audacity won him plaudits during the Civil War, but ended in failure at the Little Big Horn. McCain was an indifferent student at the Naval Academy, and at times a careless pilot. During flight training he dumped a jet in Corpus Christi Bay, and while flying too low in Spain took out some power lines. At this point he seems to have been, like several Kennedys, a typical feckless scion of a storied American family whose elite connections mitigated his questionable behavior.
But McCain redeemed himself with his heroism during his captivity in Viet Nam. Regularly tortured and abused, enduring disease and solitary confinement, he turned down an offer to be released ahead of other captives who had been there longer. He ended his first act as an iconic American hero, tough in the face of brutal treatment, and committed to the very American sense of fair play that eschewed exploiting for his own gain his father’s status as head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Finally released in 1973, McCain was poised, like many other celebrated military veterans in American history, for a political career likely to end in the White House.
But McCain never quite fully realized that potential. He became a Republican Senator, but his career marked him as an elite insider who, like many of his fellow Republicans, did not understand that the old bipartisan center had been fatally wounded by the Sixties. Particularly after the two terms of George W. Bush, the Democrat Party had moved even farther left, and wasn’t interested in “bipartisanship” or “reaching across the aisle.” As Barack Obama proved, the goal now was the “fundamental transformation” of America into a form of democratic socialism, one lite on the democratic part. “Any means necessary” and the Alinsky playbook, not the Constitution, would be the guides for this project.
McCain’s Senate career before 2008 illustrated his misguided bipartisanship based on a failure to see what the Democrats had become, and how his dubious perception of “principle” carried water for the Democrat opposition. The 2002 McCain-Feingold bill banning unlimited contributions to political parties was a patent violation of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court later ruled in its Citizens United decision, which overruled a lower court’s use of McCain-Feingold to justify censoring a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton. Perhaps worse, McCain’s outspoken opposition to waterboarding, despite its proven value in gathering intelligence, was given persuasive authority by his personal experience in Vietnam. McCain’s misguided false analogy between the sadistic, pointless torture he suffered, and the carefully controlled and calibrated practice of waterboarding to obtain life-saving information, ultimately led to the banning of this interrogation technique. Obama simply droned to death terrorists rather than interrogating them.
McCain’s failure to understand how the political sands had shifted was evident in his 2008 campaign against Obama. He campaigned as though Obama and the Democrats still embraced the postwar bipartisan consensus on how American politicians ran for office and governed. He thought that despite differences, a critical mass of Democrats still acknowledged America’s exceptionalism and essential goodness. Worse, McCain created the perception that his self-image and “principled” independence were more important than supporting the goals and beliefs of the Party that still believed in America. He never seemed to get that he was the Democrats’ favorite Republican because he often served their interests more than those of conservatives. He reveled in his “maverick” moniker, unaware that the Dems used it because to them it meant “useful idiot.”
The 2008 presidential campaign illustrated McCain’s weakness. Many of us at the time knew that Barack Obama was a one-eyed Jack, a left-wing activist who believed America was deeply flawed and guilty, and needed to do penance so it could function in the world as a “partner mindful of its own imperfections.” The public face was the specious rhetoric like “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America,” a sentiment that his serial racial demagoguery belied.
But McCain took Obama at face value, perhaps unable to look past the usual ruling-class credentials and glib rhetoric. Worse, again like too many Republicans who should have known better, McCain preemptively cringed from exploiting Obama’s sketchy and dubious past, especially his connection with his pastor of 20 years, the race-baiting Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s sermon after 9/11 about “chickens coming home to roost” and his chant of “God damn America” would have ended the career of any other politician. That it didn’t end Obama’s should have alerted McCain that he was in a different political universe than he thought he inhabited.
Instead, McCain explicitly took that damning incident off the table during his campaign. And he did so for the same reason numerous other Republicans did: they were terrified of being labeled “racist.” Thus they ceded to the progressives their dishonest racial tactics simply because as members of the elite, they feared slander from the other side. So too with his dismissal of the “birther” movement. He was praised as a “maverick” by the Dems for criticizing the “birthers,” but the Dems never reciprocated such magnanimity and attacked their own extremists when they viciously attacked George Bush and now attack Donald Trump. The consequences of this concern for personal image and high-minded rectitude in the end contributed to this country being ruled by one of the worst presidents ever.
McCain’s second political mistake was not taking advantage of the backlash among conservative American against the Democrats’ politicization of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their demonizing of the surveillance and interrogation techniques implemented to meet the demands of the citizens––and the Democrat leadership–– that a terrorist attack like 9/11 never happen again. The increasing radicalism of the Democrats was apparent when George W. Bush was president and treated with a level of calumny and vicious insult prefiguring the current treatment of Donald Trump.
For a moment McCain seemed to get it, making him a genuine maverick when he selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008. But he never really bonded with Palin. And when the forces Palin embodied took shape as the Tea Party movement in 2010, McCain still didn’t seem to understand the anti-Republican establishment animus that had been brewing for years. When he called Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz a “wacko-bird” in 2013, and this year in a book wrote he “regretted” choosing Palin, he cheered the hearts of Democrats. Even though the Tea Party helped Republicans take back the House, slowing Obama’s “transformation,” for McCain it seemed more important to receive praise from his fellow members of the political country club that looked with distaste on these uppity “deplorables.”
A few years later that backlash produced Donald Trump, who won the prize denied to two previous establishment Republicans. When Trump during the primaries channeled George S. Patton and dismissed McCain’s heroism because he “like[s] people who weren’t captured,” that gaffe should have ended his run. But what the political wise men didn’t understand was that for the voters, the question is always, “What have you done for us lately?” It’s the spirit of the illiterate Athenian who wanted to ostracize Aristides the Just because he was sick of hearing him called “the Just.”
It wasn’t so much that people scorned McCain’s heroism, but that they were sick of that experience being used to deflect his bad political decisions and over-fondness for accolades from his bipartisan peers, rather than pursuing policy achievements that could stop the Obama juggernaut. Like other Republican NeverTrumpers, McCain seemingly cared more about Trump’s brash, unconventional style than he did about restoring the nation. Perhaps that’s why in July 2017 he cast the decisive no vote on the Senate bill to repeal the disastrous Affordable Care Act. No doubt McCain thought he was acting on principle, but many Americans perceived it as a gesture of petty vengeance.
We should remember McCain’s exemplary heroism, which all of us should honor and hope we could emulate in similar circumstances. Nothing can tarnish the glory of McCain’s first act. But democratic politics is about what comes next, what a politician does that can match that earlier achievement. On that score many regret McCain’s second act, when his celebrity and heroism were seemingly used to enhance his persona rather than to resist the progressive dismantling of the Constitutional order.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.