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What McCain Knew

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What McCain Knew

The ambiguities of John McCain’s political career cannot supersede his devotion to a warrior’s code. August 26, 2018
Politics and law

In the life and career of John Sidney McCain III, who died Saturday of brain cancer at 81, more than a half-century of American history and politics can be traced: of the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, attended by his grandfather, four-star Admiral John Sidney McCain Sr., commander of the Fast Carrier Task Force that played a crucial role in securing that outcome; of America’s experience in Vietnam, during which, from the late 1960s onward, his father, four-star Admiral John Sidney McCain Jr., was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, and McCain himself, a Navy flier, was shot down over Hanoi and endured six years of captivity that included beatings, torture, and solitary confinement at the hands of the North Vietnamese; of the rise of the Reagan generation of Republicans, especially from the sunbelt, as McCain, an adoptive Arizonan, rose to become one of the nation’s most prominent senators; of the exhaustion and cynicism of post-Cold War politics, as McCain, during his 2000 Republican primary campaign, caught fire with Americans disgusted with both parties—including novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace—and seemed to offer, fleetingly, a chance at something better; and, finally and ironically, through his choice of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008, of the populist movement brewing in the country, especially (but not exclusively) on the right, which would take full form eight years later, with the election of Donald Trump—an outcome that McCain himself would rue.

Along the way, McCain would become as identifiable as any American politician and about as contentious as any, too—not only because he was a man of inextinguishable spirit and fighting temper but also because he was fond of taking on his own party, sometimes out of genuine disagreement, sometimes (probably) out of ambition and ego, and sometimes owing to his sense of responsibility to the notion that guided his career: honor. It was honor that McCain was raised in, by his father and grandfather, honor that carried him through the agonies he experienced in North Vietnam, and honor, as he saw it, that his leadership could offer the country that he loved. At its best, as when he said that he would rather lose an election than lose a war or when he gently told a woman at a town hall that Barack Obama was a fellow American with whom he disagreed, McCain’s honor could be ennobling to witness.

But honor, while an imperishable virtue, is not a political philosophy, and McCain’s great political weakness was that he was not an ideas man. Though he stood for certain things, and believed in them, his political brand was ultimately himself, and what he was selling always came back to honor. This is probably why what once seemed to be the defining moments in his career now look to be washed out on our political tides. The Keating Five scandal, in which he and other senators intervened improperly with regulators on behalf of the chairman of a savings and loan, threatened to ruin him in the late 1980s but now prompts a shrug in an age when scandal runs at two speeds: existential or inconsequential. His most famous piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act, has been largely eviscerated by Supreme Court decisions, especially Citizens United. On foreign policy, McCain’s devout hawkishness, his unswerving belief in American internationalism and American global leadership, remained essentially unreconstructed from the Cold War era—the era of his father, with roots tracing back to his grandfather (who, poetically, died the day after returning home from the Missouri surrender ceremony). It’s a world view that retains influence in the Republican Party, but no longer occupies the executive suite, and its future is uncertain. Its open-endedness eventually demoralized a substantial portion of Americans, and McCain was little help in easing their worries. If he believed in a limiting principle bounding American intervention abroad, he didn’t talk about it much.

McCain’s deviations from the Republican line put him at odds with his party’s presidents, even Republican presidents as different from one another as George W. Bush and Donald Trump. His independence (others would use different words for it) earned the enmity of true-blue conservatives over many years, right up to 2017, when he cast the deciding vote in the Senate to kill the Republicans’ “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. McCain had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma a week earlier. He reentered the Senate for the first time since that announcement, and, to audible gasps in the chamber, gave a thumbs-down signal, killing the bill. Mainstream media outlets celebrated this and other McCain dissenting behavior, as long as it went against the GOP; they were less enthused seven years earlier, when he battled furiously against Obamacare and was rebuked by the president to remember that “the election’s over.” But the adoring headlines that McCain often garnered—“Maybe we don’t deserve John McCain,” the New York Times declared last year—confirmed his conservative critics’ suspicions that the senator’s true constituency was the beltway pundit class.  

McCain’s bitter 2000 primary battle with George W. Bush left a residue of bitterness with Bush’s administration, which never trusted him, and with the conservative caucus, who saw him as someone on whom they couldn’t rely. Early in Bush’s first term, rumors flew that McCain might switch parties. He decided to stay put, probably because he wanted to run for president again and he knew that such an opportunity would never be his in the Democratic Party. Still, it meant moving closer to Bush, which couldn’t have been easy on either side. And he never stopped pushing the administration in directions it didn’t necessarily want to go. Even during the 2004 campaign, in which he campaigned for Bush, McCain objected to the advertising campaign of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the Vietnam combat veterans—including former POW Bud Day, the most decorated American military man since Douglas MacArthur—who ran ads questioning the service record of Democratic nominee John Kerry, and deeming him, in the title of John O’Neill’s book, Unfit for Command. McCain felt that it was wrong to impugn Kerry’s record and said so. He scalded the administration for its Abu Ghraib scandal, adamantly opposed torture, and announced that he had “no confidence” in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But McCain also wouldn’t give up on Bush’s Iraq War, becoming an early champion of what would be known as the Surge. He and Bush saw their last chance at a triumphant Iraq legacy stolen by subsequent events, especially Obama’s troop drawdown and the rise of ISIS. Whatever happens now in Iraq, the Surge will be buried in media res, yet another intermediate chapter of a long, blood-soaked tale.

When McCain finally did get the chance to run for president in his own right, he had to carry the banner of a party saddled with the Iraq War, a financial crisis, and stagnant job growth endangering the middle class. The enduring irony of 2008, though, was that McCain, in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate—her crowds outdrew his on the campaign trail—helped foreshadow the rise of Trump, a development that symbolized the eclipse not only of McCain’s brand of Republicanism but also of his brand of politics. Some say that the Palin choice scars McCain’s political legacy, as if it were Palin who launched Trump, but the movement that celebrated her and anointed the 45th president clearly predated their arrival. What Ronald Reagan had once called, in reference to earlier populist movements, a “prairie fire,” was waiting to be kindled, and it seems dubious to give McCain much credit (or blame) for striking an early match, especially when he clearly hadn’t meant to do so.

It was probably inevitable that Trump and McCain, being of such irreconcilable characters and temperaments, could find no comity, or even pretend to. When Trump made his infamous comments about McCain in 2015—“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured”—his words possessed, for his supporters, the thrilling taboo quality of the unsayable. (And Trump’s  weird contempt for McCain’s POW experience long predates his 2015 remarks).That the comment didn’t sink Trump, or even hurt him, as it would have a generation earlier, was a good marker for how dramatically political mores had declined since McCain emerged from captivity in Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And it is to the Hanoi Hilton, and Vietnam, and the solitary cell, and the beatings and torture and heroism, to which one must return, and conclude, in assessing McCain, because all the politics, with the compromises and failings and missteps, cannot supersede his devotion to a warrior’s ideal that, with just slight contemporary American touches, is barely distinguishable from those of antiquity. In Vietnam, the McCain ambiguities disappear. Here McCain endured things and saw others that would destroy most human beings.

Before becoming a POW, he’d already had one brush with death, being on board the USS Forrestal when it suffered its catastrophic fire, but escaping with non-serious injuries. Shortly afterward, he joined up with the Saints, a squadron of the USS Orsikany, the carrier that flew the most sorties and lost the most pilots during the three years of Operation Rolling Thunder. On October 26, 1967, his A-4 attack plane was shot down over Hanoi, then the most heavily defended city in the world. He ejected from his aircraft, a violent process that broke both arms and one leg, landing in Truc Bach Lake. He secured his life vest toggle with his teeth. Dragged ashore by furious North Vietnamese, he was beaten and taken to Hoa Lo. His captors beat him further and interrogated him, denying him medical care as his condition worsened. Blacking out from pain, feverish and suffering dysentery, dropping pounds faster than weak men drop secrets, he looked to his fellow POWs like a man marked for death—but they cared for him as best they could, keeping him alive. When his captors discovered who his father was, they gave him medical care, of a sort; his broken arms were not set properly, the doctor instead putting him in an excruciating chest cast. McCain—like his Senate colleague, fellow veteran and presidential nominee Bob Dole—never fully regained the use of his arms, and the ghost of this long-ago experience would become visible ever after in his public life, when he gestured from the podium or greeted people.

McCain endured more than two years in solitary confinement, keeping his spirits together through mental exercises in the grain of the Stoic philosophers: the key being to preserve the mind as autonomous and independent of outside reality, a constant reminder that one can remain in control of one’s fate, even in dire circumstances. McCain described the struggle in Faith of My Fathers, his gripping 1999 memoir:

It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment. Having no one else to rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your judgment and your courage. But you eventually adjust to solitary, as you can to almost any hardship, by devising various methods to keep your mind off your troubles and greedily grasping any opportunity for human contact.

The first few weeks are the hardest. The onset of despair is immediate, and it is a formidable foe. You have to fight it with any means necessary, all the while trying to bridle the methods you devise to combat loneliness and prevent them from robbing your senses. I tried to memorize the names of POWs, the names and personal details of guards and interrogators, and the details of my environment. I devised other memory games to keep my faculties sound. For days I tried to remember the names of all the pilots in my squadron and our sister squadron. I also prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man.

McCain found a lifeline in the communication he developed with other prisoners, via a tapping code by which they could send messages to one another. Dropping the letter “k,” they used a 25-character alphabet, in five columns of five letters each, and created words by painstakingly tapping out column-number and character-number, with a pause between each sequence: McCain’s surname, for example, would be tapped out 3-2, 1-3, 1-3, 1-1, 2-4, 3-3. His relationships with men like Bob Craner and Bud Day kept him alive. He and his fellows lived out Stoic principles, learning that one should avoid extremes of hope or despair and instead follow the principle of “steady strain”—an even keel for everything, since this was the only way to maintain morale and self-preservation. (McCain’s father did the same: though his wife would hear the admiral praying alone daily, beseeching God to “show Johnny mercy,” the U.S. commander in the Pacific refused to discuss his son’s predicament, even with close friends, seeing it as a merely personal misfortune. His lone concession, besides prayer, was to stand at the northernmost end of any Navy vessel, putting him as near to his son as possible.)

Even stoicism did not prepare McCain for the choice that the North Vietnamese would give him: early release. They assumed that Admiral McCain’s battered son would find the offer irresistible, and they figured that it would make good propaganda. But the code of conduct for prisoners of war dictated that inmates are to be released in the order they were captured, and McCain knew that many men had been in captivity for longer than he. Given his physical suffering, the temptation must have been extraordinary, but he upheld the code and refused. He was rewarded with the worst torture yet:

At two-to-three-hour intervals, the guards returned to administer beatings. The intensity of the punishment varied from visit to visit depending on the enthusiasm and energy of the guards. Still, I felt they were being careful not to kill or permanently injure me. One guard would hold me while the others pounded away. Most blows were directed at my shoulders, chest, and stomach. Occasionally, when I had fallen to the floor, they kicked me in the head. They cracked several of my ribs and broke a couple of teeth. My bad right leg was swollen and hurt the most of any of my injuries. Weakened by beatings and dysentery, and with my right leg again nearly useless, I found it almost impossible to stand.

On the third night, I lay in my own blood and waste, so tired that I could not move. The Prick came in with two other guards, lifted me to my feet, and gave me the worst beating I had yet experienced. At one point he slammed his fist into my face and knocked me across the room toward the waste bucket. I fell on the bucket, hitting it with my left arm, and breaking it again. They left me lying on the floor, moaning from the stabbing pain in my refractured arm.

Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, and fearing the close approach of my moment of dishonor, I tried to take my life. I doubt I really intended to kill myself. But I couldn’t fight anymore, and I remember deciding that the last thing I could do to make them believe I was still resisting, that I wouldn’t break, was to attempt suicide.

The guards intervened before McCain could hang himself, then beat him some more.

On the fourth day of the ordeal, McCain wrote, “I gave up.” He confessed, that is, agreeing to sign a statement that the North Vietnamese wrote for him—and rewrote, with him haggling over the edits, even in his weakened state, and refusing to consent to language that had him bombing schools. But they got their statement, and they recorded McCain reading it, though his nightmare that they would publish the confession to humiliate his father didn’t come to pass. Still, he felt deeply ashamed that he had been “broken,” and that he had let his fellows down, though they didn’t see it that way: the Code did not mandate superhuman strength, only that one resist to his utmost. As Admiral McCain told his son after he returned to the United States, during the only conversation the two ever had about it: “You did the best you could, John. That’s all that’s expected of any of us.”

McCain emerged from Hanoi a changed man, carrying a truth that would shape his political career: “I discovered in prison that faith in myself alone, separate from other, more important allegiances, was ultimately no match for the cruelty that human beings could devise when they were entirely unencumbered by respect for the God-given dignity of man. This is the lesson I learned in prison. It is, perhaps, the most important lesson I have ever learned.”

All of this made McCain far from the typical presidential candidate, and his character resonated for one of the great American writers of this generation, David Foster Wallace, who was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover McCain’s campaign for a week in February 2000. A Bill Bradley voter in the Illinois primaries, Wallace had been given his choice of candidates to travel with and had selected McCain after seeing him on Charlie Rose and deciding that he was either “incredibly honest and forthright or else just insane.” The resulting 25,000-word essay, originally published as “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub,” later anthologized in Consider the Lobster as “Up, Simba,” and finally published as a short book, McCain’s Promise, is a rollicking, inside-the-campaign-bus view of nine days in a presidential candidate’s daily progress, complete with all the Wallace touches—the encyclopedic cataloging of detail, like the kinds of cellphones everyone on the bus uses, which then prompts from Wallace a prophetic observation: “It is not an exaggeration to say that when somebody’s cell phone breaks they almost have to be sedated”; the deep-dive anecdote, like the hilarious set-piece about the campaign bus’s sliding-door bathroom, and the problems that ensue; and panoramic takes on everything from the American landscape—“You can tell it must be spooky down here in the summer,” Wallace writes of South Carolina, “all wet moss and bog-steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat”—to the makeup of campaign crowds and the character of questioners at town hall meetings.

But it is McCain, above all, who drives Wallace’s interest. The writer is skeptical about McCain’s politics, which he considers too far right, but fascinated by the man himself. Unlike any other politician, Wallace thinks, McCain can tell audiences that he wants them to pursue something besides self-interest and really seem to mean it. Whether this was genuine, unvarnished sincerity or a synthetic version of sincerity coming from a politician with an irresistible life story was a question that Wallace wrestled with throughout, but his doubts and inherent skepticism about politicians always led him back to McCain in Hanoi: 

The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered—voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliché, much like so many other clichés—“service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism”—that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though . . . something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened?

In the end, as in the beginning, honor remained McCain’s guiding light. It is fair and reasonable to pursue the argument that, in his political life, McCain’s notion of honor could slide, and did slide, into ambition or hubris, and these into prideful error. It is also fair and reasonable to remind ourselves, in rendering judgment, that we operate at a permanent disadvantage: we cannot know of honor what McCain knew.

Top Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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