A decade ago, on one of his seemingly countless visits to Iraq, John McCain, who was generally immune to the charms of introspection—“Stop trying to get me on the couch, you shit,” he once said, smiling, when I tried to encourage him toward self-analysis—talked about the dominion of human cowardice, and the story of Anne Frank, in a way that I found startling.
We had been discussing the American war in Iraq, which he supported steadfastly, even after everything went sideways. The cause, he said, was just. The execution, at least until the troop surge of 2007, was a disgrace, but this didn’t move him off his principles. “I hated Saddam,” he said. “He ruled through murder. Didn’t we learn from Hitler that we can’t let that happen?” His hatred of Saddam Hussein, like his hatred for all dictators, burned hot; his contempt for Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, was ice-cold. It was Rumsfeld’s arrogance and incompetence, McCain believed, that helped discredit the American invasion. “He was the worst,” McCain said.
I offered a qualified dissent in response. I supported the invasion for more or less the same reason McCain did—I wanted to see the Kurdish people, the preeminent victims of Saddam’s genocidal fury, suffer no more. But unlike McCain, I had come to believe that the theory of the American case was no match for heartbreaking Middle East reality. I wasn’t sure that even the most perspicacious secretary of defense could successfully lead an effort to renovate a despotic Middle Eastern country. I suggested to McCain that this sort of grandiose undertaking was not necessarily a core competency of the United States. “But genocide!” he said. “Genocide!” His argument was not only concise, but morally superior. Not analytically superior, but morally, no doubt.
We spoke every so often about the Holocaust, and its supposed lessons (one lesson, he told me once, in a mainly, though not entirely, devilish way, was that Jews should be well armed). He said that, in the post-Holocaust world, all civilized people, and the governments of all civilized nations, should be intolerant of leaders who commit verified acts of genocide. That, he suggested, is the most salient lesson of all.
I told him then that he would most definitely pass the Anne Frank test. He was unfamiliar with the concept (mildly surprising, given that his best friend was Joe Lieberman). The Anne Frank test, something I learned from a Holocaust survivor almost 40 years ago, is actually a single question: Which non-Jewish friends would risk their lives to hide us should the Nazis ever return?
McCain laughed at the compliment. Then he became serious. “I like to think that in the toughest moments I’d do the right thing, but you never know until you’re tested.” I found this to be an absurd thing for him to say. Few men had been tested like John McCain; few men have passed these tests in the manner of John McCain. Of all the many stories of McCain’s heroism in Vietnamese captivity, the one I’ve always found most affecting is this one: When presented with the opportunity to be freed—he was the son of an important admiral, and his release would constitute a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese—McCain demurred; it was not his turn (prisoners were generally released based on their time in captivity), and he would not skip to the head of the line. When he rejected the Vietnamese offer, he knew that intense torture would be his reward. And he did it anyway. His sense of honor would allow him to do nothing else.
I pressed him on this point. “I’ve failed enough in my life to know that it’s always an option,” he said. “I like to think I would do what it takes, but fear will make you do terrible things.”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m pretty sure you’d kill Nazis to defend Anne Frank,” I said.
He smiled. “It would be an honor and a privilege.”
John McCain possessed many sterling qualities; two of the most admirable were on display in this conversation. The first was his visceral antipathy for powerful men who abuse powerless people. A few years ago, I asked him about a fight he was then having with President Barack Obama. McCain wanted Obama to supply Ukraine with weapons it could deploy against Russian invaders. Obama, quite logically, believed that these weapons would be ineffective against the Russian juggernaut, and might actually provoke Vladimir Putin into even more aggressive action. McCain understood the possible ramifications of a decision to arm the Ukrainians. But his sense of honor—and his Hemingway-influenced romantic fatalism—led him to a different conclusion.
“When people want to fight for their freedom, we have to be there with them.” As one of his aides later explained, “He believes it’s better to die fighting than just die.”
I asked McCain, Is this the American way? “It should be,” he said. “It always should be.” (McCain’s amanuensis, his former chief of staff Mark Salter told me recently, when I asked him if McCain is more frustrated by Putin’s existence or by the fact that some Americans—I had in mind one American in particular—don’t seem to understand Putin’s nature, “There’s always a Putin somewhere in the world, and you’re meant to oppose them with all the skills God gave you.”)
The second quality on display in our conversation was self-doubt—or, at the very least, self-knowledge. It is almost impossible, in our era, for politicians to keep from becoming hollowed out (assuming they weren’t hollow to begin with). There is no reward in American politics for public displays of self-awareness or self-criticism. And yet, John McCain understood human nature, and his own nature, enough to state the plausible: that in moments of great testing, it is possible for any human, including the bravest human, to fail.
McCain, of course, failed in various ways, large and small. I think that many of his failures will be forgotten by history, except for the fact that he tended to catalogue them himself, and then recite them publicly.
Once, on a lightning-fast trip to Hungary (all of his trips seemed lightning-fast; as The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin recalls, McCain’s aides would refer to his overseas adventures as Bataan Death Marches), I raised the subject of imperfection—not his, but America’s. McCain was visiting Budapest to buttress the democratic opposition there, and to fire a warning shot at the country’s autocratically minded president. I asked him if it ever felt hypocritical to argue for a set of values that we live in America only aspirationally. “We get things wrong all the time,” he said. “It’s true. But the ideals are great, they’re perfect. They’re something to aim for.”
John McCain was far from perfect. But as his former campaign adviser Steve Schmidt said Saturday night, shortly after McCain died, “He perfectly loved this country.”
A man apparently devoid of any redeeming qualities currently occupies the Oval Office. It is important to remember that America is also capable of producing leaders like John McCain.