Traditionally, a sense of honor can indicate at least one of two qualities. The first is an unwillingness to tolerate insult. The second is to work, however imperfectly, toward doing no unworthy thing. Some political figures have one of these two characteristics. Many have neither.
Unusually, John McCain had both.
McCain was a Christian, but when he referred to the faith of his fathers, it was not primarily to their religion. Rather, it was to the tradition of military service that defined his family.
As every American knows, and even in an age where the word “hero” is overused, McCain was the genuine article. One central action of his life was so remarkable that—like all true hero stories—it bears repeating one more time.
In 1967, naval aviator McCain was shot down over the skies of Vietnam. Taken as a prisoner by the North, he was brutally tortured. When his Communist captors realized he was the son of an American admiral, they offered to free him. He refused. This refusal grew from the knowledge that being freed out of order would represent a propaganda victory for the North; a betrayal of his fellow prisoners; a breach of U.S. Navy regulations; and a violation of his own code of honor.
McCain did not know at that time he would go on to become one of America’s leading senators. For all he knew, he was bound to die painfully in that prison. His decision was informed by a fierce patriotism that went bone-deep. But it was also informed by a usefully rebellious, willful streak that carved his path more than once.
On returning to the United States, McCain eventually made his way to Arizona. He did not grow up in that state, but made it his home, and from the very start he possessed qualities recognizably Western. Specifically: he was wry, self-effacing, stubbornly independent, straightforward, restless, and tough as nails. He frequently did things the hard way, when an easier one might be found.
Capturing first a seat in the House of Representatives, and then in the U.S. Senate, McCain was admirably ambitious, both to secure his preferred public policies and to serve in higher office. He was perfectly capable of moves left and right in service of those ambitions. He was also willing to sacrifice his own political capital many times on matters he considered high principle. Over the years, the Washington press corps consequently engaged in a series of silly gyrations with regard to McCain. Whenever he moved to the center on some important issue, or even to the left, the mostly liberal-leaning press would celebrate it as a worthy and courageous stance. Whenever he moved back to the right, they would wring their hands and wonder where the “real” McCain had gone—as if only leftward movement could be admirable or authentic. I suspect the senator watched all such journalistic absurdities with a twinkle in his eye, and enjoyed good press when he got it.
The truth is that McCain was a Reagan Republican, with a mostly conservative voting record over the span of a long career, but with some distinct qualities all his own. He was entirely willing to break party ranks, and did so repeatedly on major issues including health care, immigration, taxes, and campaign finance reform. These stands were often exasperating to more orthodox conservatives. Viewed according to his own lights, he championed a reform-minded, center-right version of Republicanism oriented toward the entire American nation. Arguably, his central guiding principle was never any dogmatic ideological checklist, but simply an intense love of country. In other words, he was not a hack, but rather the opposite.
On foreign policy, McCain was of course an unequalled advocate of strong national defenses, beginning as a staunch Cold Warrior. During his early congressional career, he could be quite skeptical of specific U.S. military actions in cases such as Lebanon and Somalia. Over the course of the 1990s, he gravitated toward a more consistently interventionist position, on behalf of the concept of rogue state rollback. The strengths and weaknesses of the latter position have been thoroughly inventoried over the years—and will continue to be. Suffice to say that McCain championed a kind of muscular U.S. foreign policy idealism with a conviction and intensity second to none. He was also characteristically brave and honest, notably in his final memoir, in admitting central cases where this approach had failed. It is interesting to speculate whether a President McCain, with his unique background, might have handled the initial occupation of Iraq with better preparation, including less deference toward U.S. military advisers. We’ll never know.
One of the standard complaints about McCain on the right was that he went too easy on Barack Obama while running for president in 2008. This charge was always a ridiculous one. McCain captured his party’s nomination at a moment of unparalleled voter backlash against the GOP as a whole. The notion that he would have won, if only he had stooped into the gutter, is absurd. As always, McCain fought his heart out, and honorably so. It was not a Republican year.
In his last act as senator, from a preeminent perch as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he played out his leading role as a powerful champion of America’s military along with its alliances overseas. On these issues, predictably, he was a rock.
The papers reported, as they had the last couple of years, that McCain’s convictions on national security were now entirely dead within his own party. As usual, the papers got it wrong. Some of his beliefs, at least, are widely shared by a great many grassroots conservatives to this very day. These convictions include, for example: the maintenance of strong U.S. armed forces; robust deterrence; U.S. international leadership; support for America’s allies; and relentless opposition to its enemies. Millions of Republicans nationwide continue to share those beliefs.
I met Senator McCain only once, very briefly. Here’s what struck me most on that occasion: the man was funny. Not the usual Beltway version. But spontaneously, uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny. No doubt this rich sense of humor came from the same joyful, invulnerable core of himself that defied all despair.
McCain brought out the best in people, even when they disagreed with him on specific policies. He brought a sense of dignity, authenticity, and utter fearlessness to his position. In other words, he was classically American. Today, we are told by many on both sides of the aisle that these qualities have long since passed. But of course they said the same thing over fifty years ago, in an equally if not more unsettling era. McCain then proceeded to personally prove the defeatists wrong, not by what he said, but through his actions in a Vietnamese POW camp. And it is for these qualities of character above all, more than for any particular issue or vote, that McCain is not only respected but loved by so many Americans. He showed, through his life, that certain timeless qualities have not entirely disappeared in our own time. For that reason, his example lives on, and will never really die.
Colin Dueck is the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton 2010).