a portrait of John McCain

John McCain and the Lost Art of Decency

In decades of covering politics, I’ve encountered no one else with McCain’s unflinching combination of bracing candor, impossibly high standards, and rueful self-recrimination.

He loomed as one of the last remaining larger-than-life figures in American politics, but it’s the small, human moments with John McCain that linger indelibly in memory now.

In his prime, before the compromises of his last presidential campaign shrunk him into a defensive crouch, his preferred method of controlling his image was to abandon all the modern methods of self-presentation, whether conducting a rollicking running seminar aboard his “Straight Talk Express” bus or ruminating with a solitary journalist on a long flight in a small chartered plane.

“Most current fiction bores the shit out of me,” he once told me somewhere over New England, as I followed him around for weeks of stumping in the 2006 midterm elections that amounted to the beginning of his own 2008 campaign. As I wrote in a 2007 profile of McCain for Vanity Fair, he once allowed, to a gathering of midwestern businessmen, “I want to keep health-care costs down until I get sick, and then I don’t give a goddamn.” To a group of Wisconsin college kids waiting to have their pictures taken with him, he mock grumbled, “All right, you little jerks!” And on an executive jet high above Iowa, he read aloud a USA Today headline: “Actor [Wesley] Snipes Faces Indictment on Tax Fraud Charges” and muttered: “All our childhood heroes—shattered!”

The Tao of John McCain was unlike that of any other politician I’ve ever covered. Ed Koch was as colorful, Mario Cuomo as smart, George W. Bush as human. But no one combined McCain’s unflinching mix of bracing candor, impossibly high standards, and rueful self-recrimination when he (inevitably) failed to live up to the ideals he outlined for himself. Count me as a card-carrying member of the perennially fascinated constituency that McCain used to refer to as his base: the working press.

In his 2000 primary campaign against Bush in South Carolina, he at first denounced the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism and slavery, and then—after his advisers went berserk— took to reading aloud a statement explaining, “I understand both sides.” His maverick campaign never rebounded any more than his reputation ever completely recovered after he chose the palpably unqualified Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate. But just as he later lashed himself for not picking his first choice—Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman—so he analyzed his failure on the flag issue with an unsparing eye.

“By the time I was asked the question the fourth or fifth time,” he wrote in a memoir, “I could have delivered the response from memory. But I persisted with the theatrics of unfolding the paper and reading it as if I were making a hostage statement. I wanted to telegraph to reporters that I really didn’t mean to suggest I supported flying the flag, but political imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president. I think that made the offense worse. Acknowledging my dishonesty with a wink didn’t make it less a lie. It compounded the offense by revealing how willful it had been. You either have the guts to tell the truth or you don’t. You don’t get any dispensation for lying in a way that suggests your dishonesty.”

Show me a politician—any politician, anywhere—who still talks that way in the 21st century, or will ever talk that way again. In that sense, McCain’s death marks the passing not only of a spirited public servant, but the disappearance of a certain brand of decent self-awareness in public life, a recognition that politics isn’t a reality show, or any kind of show, but a real and serious business on which millions of lives and the fates of nations depend. Like his hero Robert Jordan, in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, McCain always believed that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.”

Did McCain often fall short? Yes. He had his craven, infuriating moments. Fending off a conservative primary challenger in his 2010 Senate reelection campaign, he, by turns, flip-flopped on overturning the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays serving openly; abandoned his support of comprehensive immigration reform; chose not to support a legislative fix after the Supreme Court overturned a key element of his signature campaign-finance-reform law; and even went so far as to declare that he had never considered himself to be a maverick at all, prompting Jon Stewart to note that he had not only sold his soul, but sold it short.

I myself then wrote somewhat peevishly that it was possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a “ruthless and self-centered survivor,” who had never pursued an overriding philosophy or legislative agenda, but simply lived for the fight. He once told his press secretary Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat because it is cunning and eats well. For his part, in the thick of that primary campaign, McCain just said, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.”

When his North Vietnamese captors demanded the names of his flight squadron, McCain recited the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line, knowing that the false information would suffice (for the moment) to end their abuse. “There’s no bar fight he will walk away from,” his onetime political strategist John Weaver once told me.

To the last, it’s that fighting spirit that defines McCain. Nearly alone among his Republican Senate colleagues, he stood up to Donald Trump, depriving the president of a deciding vote on the repeal of Obamacare, and repeatedly rebuking him in no uncertain terms when he felt like it, memorably declaring that the president had “abased himself” in front of Vladimir Putin, a “tyrant.”

In high school, one of McCain’s nicknames was McNasty, and his belligerence did not always endear him to either the Republicans or Democrats with whom he often feuded. But in the end, he outfought and outthought and outlasted most of them, and the evident courage with which he has faced his final illness prompted bipartisan expressions of admiration and respect that felt as unforced as his own outspoken pronouncements over the years. In his captivity in Vietnam, McCain endured more pain than most people could ever imagine. His wartime injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders; he could not comb his own hair without help.

Once, as we prepared to get out of a small airplane in Vermont, where McCain would be greeted by the governor, he struggled to put on his suit jacket. I turned away for a moment, only to notice that he was upset. He could sense that his coat collar was all bunched up, and he asked me matter-of-factly to help him straighten it. It was the smallest thing, but I’ll never forget the sudden, sharp, painful impression it made on me as McCain ducked down the stairs: I was standing behind a very big man.