By Luis Arellano
Publicly, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who passed away yesterday, is being mourned as a statesman and war hero who survived torture in the Hanoi Hilton. Privately, former colleagues, Republican party officials, and conservative activists see a more complicated picture of his legacy. To them, McCain’s legacy is studded with scandals and political betrayals that few want to discuss openly. “John McCain was a maverick in the sense you never knew when he was going to vote with the Democrats instead of the Republicans,” said The Stream Senior Editor and Townhall.com contributor Rachel Alexander. The Arizona resident, a longtime McCain constituent, told AMI that while McCain “was a bit of a hawk” on foreign policy, the Vietnam war hero’s rhetoric rarely matched his record. “He called himself pro-life, but advocated for government-funded embryonic stem cell research. He said he was pro-Second Amendment, but led calls to end the so-called gunshow loophole.”
“Conservatives were wary of him,” said Alexander, “but he ran a powerful political machine in Arizona that went around them to help him repeatedly get reelected. He may not have been the most likable guy in politics, but he was one of the most savvy.”
John McCain’s father, a career navy man who climbed to admiral and was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, where the future U.S. senator was born – a tropical birthplace that would later became a liability since it raised constitutional questions surrounding his campaign.
Certainly, McCain‘s life was one of high drama from his graduating 894th in a class of 899, near the bottom of his class from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, to his heroic war record in the skies over North Viet Nam, his poise during torture sessions as prisoner of that communist dictatorship, his release and recovery, and his political career. The latter was marked by campaign-finance scandal and his campaign-finance reforms–which some see as historic and others view as unconstitutional. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned key elements of his best-known legislative work, known as the McCain-Feingold Act.
After graduating from Annapolis, the young McCain requested a combat assignment and was duly assigned to the USS Forrestal in Vietnam. For McCain, such an assignment played to his need to live-up to the heroic footsteps of his idol President Theodore Roosevelt. But deploying the son of a U.S. admiral to the combat zone also heightened the risk to his fellow sailors as he immediately became a target for the communist regime. Ultimately, McCain‘s shoot-down and capture was a major propaganda coup for the enemy.
McCain arrived on the USS Forrestal in 1967 in time to survive a serious fire aboard ship that year. While flying over North Vietnam on October 26th, his plane was shot down. After being badly beaten, McCain was moved to Hỏa Lò Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
McCain’s capture was particuarily hard on his first wife, Carol. She led a national effort to free him as a POW. Her movement invented the POW black flag and the bracelets with prisoner’s names on them. A year before he was freed, she was injured in a car accident and walked with a shortened leg.
McCain met Cindy Lou Hensley, a beer distributorship heiress, in April 1979. He quickly secured a divorce from his first wife, Carol, and married the moneyed Hensley. His first wife was decidedly middle-class.
Soon after, McCain retired from the Navy on April 1, 1981 and moved to Phoenix, Arizona to work for Hensley & Co., his father-in-law’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship, as vice president of public relations.
The strategic marriage propelled McCain‘s political career. One year later, he ran, as a Republican, for Arizona’s 1st congressional district. He won, largely due to substantial funds that his wife lent to the campaign.
Throughout his tenure in the House of Representatives, McCain rarely saw a war he wasn’t inclined to agree with. Despite his own experience in Vietnam, he never worried about a foreign policy that could easily drag America into a new one. McCain’s his enmity toward the USSR and Iran blossomed at this time as did his ardent support for the Contras in Nicaragua.
Elected to fill conservative legend Barry Goldwater’s U.S. senate seat, McCain‘s senate tenure began in January 1987 and was immediately engulfed in scandal. While McCain was a congressman, he had accepted $112,000 in political contributions from Charles Keating Jr., a banker McCain had met while working at Hensley & Co., and Keating’s associates at Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. McCain was one of the five senators whom Keating supported in the hopes of preventing the government’s seizure of his savings-and-loan and, to that end, McCain participated in meetings with regulators regarding the seizure. After its investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared McCain of breaking any Senate rules, but rebuked him for exercising “poor judgment.”
McCain quickly re-made himself as a foe of corrupting campaign contributions, which he saw as a form of “legal bribery.” The Democratic Party, which enjoyed a controlling majority in both houses of Congress from 1954 to 1980, when it lost control of the U.S. Senate in the Reagan landslide, and regained control of both chambers when McCain was first elected in 1986, had long since made “campaign finance reform” a priority. The first campaign-spending limits were enacted by a Democratic Party majority on the eve of World War II and progressively tightened over the years. Limiting the freedom to donate to campaigns was long seen as an attempt to nullify one of the Republican minority’s few advantages: the ability to summon vast sums from business owners and others personally affected by taxation and regulation. In a surprise move among his Republican colleagues, McCain adopted this as his signature issue.
After winning reelection in 1992, McCain intensified his criticism the allegedly corrupting influence of political contributions from wealthy groups and individuals. He began working with Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, on campaign finance reform bill. It was introduced, in 1994, as the “McCain–Feingold” act.
McCain championed a key Democratic Party plank (campaign finance) while speaking out against “big government”–a combination of positions which won support from national media and votes back home in Arizona. He was easily re-elected in 1998.
He published a memoir, Faith of My Fathers, in August 1999, which won positive reviews. It was made into a TV film. The memoir was a precursor to his presidential run which he soon announced. As a candidate, McCain attracted adoring network-television coverage, but failed to connect with conservative voters. As at a campaign stop he was asked about his time as a POW and his views of his captors to which he responded, “I hate the gooks…I will hate them as long as I live.”
Three months into the presidential campaign, on March 7, 2000, McCain withdrew from the race after losing nine of the thirteen primaries on Super Tuesday to Texas Governor George W. Bush.
After a closely contested general election and post-election vote-counting showdown, Bush won the White House–and the enmity of John McCain. McCain disagreed with the newly elected President Bush on a number of issues, including tax policy and so-called campaign-finance reform.
The September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans and others, in New York and Washington, unified the country behind President Bush, if only for a time. Joining the groundswell, McCain supported the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan and was one of the authors of the legislation that created the 9/11 Commission to uncover U.S. intelligence failures.
He never gave up on what he called “campaign-finance reform.” The McCain–Feingold bill was signed into law in March 2002. Politics continued as usual, except candidates have to include a voice-over saying their name and adding “I approve of this message.” This soon become a source of online parody.
Money did not leave politics with McCain‘s costly rules. The number of lobbyists continued to grow as well. There were fewer than 500 lobbyists per member of congress in 1982; there are more than 7,700 per congressmen today, according to Time magazine.
McCain never gave up his presidential ambitions and formally announced another presidential bid on April 25, 2007, saying, “I’m not running for president to be somebody, but to do something.”
McCain’s campaign suffered serious fundraising problems in the first half of 2007, due in part to his support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which would have made it possible for millions of foreign-born people, who were in the U.S. without legal permission, to become citizens, vote in elections and receive government benefits. Conservatives saw this as a move to add millions of new Democratic Party voters to the rolls while vastly expanding the cost of government programs; liberals saw it as a humanitarian gesture to treat “undocumented workers” with dignity and respect. Like campaign-finance reform, McCain‘s immigration ideas were more popular with the press and the opposing party than with his own.
McCain‘s campaign staff dwindled to a handful by July, but McCain refused to drop out. Later that month, McCain’s campaign manager and chief strategist both abandoned him and McCain dropped again in national polls.
Nonetheless, McCain‘s persistence paid off when he won the New Hampshire primary on January 8, 2008, narrowly defeating former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Through sheer dogged persistence, McCain began to win over delegates one-by-one. Ultimately, he won the 2008 Republican nomination.
During this same period he stubbornly supported the Iraq “Surge” a policy of increasing the amount of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq a policy that ultimately contributed to a political change on the ground in Iraq. Bolstered by the United States a number of key Sunni tribal sheikhs switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to the U.S. as part of the Sunni Sahwah or awakening. Though McCain would later regret his early support for the Iraq war his gamble on the Surge proved correct.
When Senator Barack Obama became the Democrats’ presumptive nominee in June, McCain proposed joint town hall meetings. Obama refused.
McCain also criticized Obama for opting out of public campaign financing and its accompanying restrictions–something no other qualifying candidate had ever done since public financing was adopted in the 1970s. McCain also saw it as rebuke to his life’s work on the issue. The Obama campaign said it needed to operate freely to overcome a Democratic Party Establishment that had favored Hillary Clinton and to beat a media darling like McCain. This implicitly took the view that McCain‘s “reforms” entrench incumbents while penalizing upstarts, which enraged the Arizona senator.
In August, McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, making him the first Republican presidential nominee to select a woman for that position. Following the announcement, McCain surged ahead of Obama in national polls. In Palin, conservatives found someone to support in the McCain candidacy.
However, voter appraisal of Palin quickly grew negative as the press pummeled her with questions unrelated to her campaign positions. All of the attacks usually reserved for the top of the ticket were re-directed at Palin, a governor of a small-population state where politics is less personal and less vicious. The media, which McCain once half-jokingly referred to as “my base,” had grown hostile.
In a shocking and unprecedented move, on September 24, 2008, McCain announced that he was “suspending” his campaign to work on the sub-prime mortgage crisis and unsuccessfully called on Obama to do likewise. Nonplussed, McCain proceeded to engage in the first debate while working on the bailout legislation. The legislation was complex and immune to easy summary; it wasn’t popular and it wasn’t likely understood.
Obama had won the first debate, polls showed, as he would the next two. In those debates, McCain often invoked the Viet Nam War, which had shaped his life. It was a war that America had lost before nearly half of the 2008 electorate was even born.
During the final debate, McCain characterized Obama’s economic platform as socialistic and implied that “Joe the Plumber,” an archetypal small business owner, would be hurt by an Obama presidency. It was too little, too late. McCain won 173 Electoral-College votes while Obama won 365.
Following his defeat and return to the Senate, McCain became a bitter foe of everything the Obama administration had proposed. He led Republican opposition to the Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package and criticized Obama for not sending additional troops to Afghanistan. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as “ObamaCare”) became law, McCain opposed the legislation, both on its merits as well as the way it had whipped through Congress without a single Republican vote of support. In 2017 he voted against a repeal bill over procedural issues.
Still in the Senate, McCain was in office during the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. He was quick to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab despots to step down from power. He also supported Obama’s military intervention in Libya – which produced chaos and civil war, not the democracy that the senator hoped for. He later called Anti-Gaddafi forces and the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, hailing the rebels as “heroes.” Libya has yet to recover from Obama’s intervention and remains largely in chaos.
Following the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, McCain condemned the administration’s handling of the attack, saying it was “a massive cover-up.”
Later, he led an effort to successfully block Susan Rice from succeeding Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, McCain has called for U.S. intervention on behalf of the anti-government forces and, in May 2013, he visited rebels and called for arming the Free Syrian Army. McCain saw himself as a champion of democracy and liberty around the globe but, could turn a blind-eye at times. In 2016, he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi describing him as India’s “most effective” leader in some time — despite Modi’s involvement in ethnic violence in his native Gujrat in 2002 that left hundreds dead.
Never a fan of the “tea party” wing of his party, McCain famously called Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Rep. Justin Amash “wacko birds.”
Those “tea party” Republicans helped their party win control of the U.S. senate for the first time since 2006, which elevated McCain into chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee. He enjoyed the new high-profile post and used it to champion Saudi Arabia’s efforts to defeat Iran’s proxy forces and al Qaeda elements in Yemen.
McCain was reelected for a fifth term and, despite his declining health, remained a voice on the national stage that was critical of Trump.
Throughout his career, McCain’s public reputation was shaped by his military service and his captivity, his “maverick” persona in favor of limiting campaign donations while lifting restrictions on illegal migrants, his long-held personal grudges against the presidents who defeated his presidential ambitions, his history of ill considered-yet-colorful remarks, and his consistent support for military interventions abroad.
However, McCain’s complicated record has left his legacy one of respect for many, even on the right. “In a time in which many political activists appear to view integrity and unwavering commitment to principle as an obstacle to securing power, John McCain showed America that being a politician did not require surrendering to venality and hypocrisy,” Commentary Associate Editor Noah Rothman told AMI. “He gave no quarter in the pursuit of his objectives, but nor did he allow the political to become personal. His commitment to modesty, thrift, and competence in government was an example to all Americans, and his service to our country both in and out of uniform is a gift that can never be repaid.”