Speaker for the Dead: what is the truth of John McCain’s legacy?

Was John McCain a gutsy take-no-shit “maverick”? An honorable man of principle overrun by a corrupt system? Or a genuinely horrible human being?


Ye shall know them by their fruits. – Matthew 7:16

As the world rushes to honor the late Sen. John McCain we see an unusual dynamic playing out. Not only are there predictably tense disagreements about him between conservatives and liberals, but there are debates among conservatives – some worshipped him, and some took a more Trumpian view.

As it turns out, there are some debates on the left, as well. As you’d imagine, McCain wasn’t a favorite of most S&R staffers, but there are nonetheless disagreements about his character, and if he tried to be good and then went bad, then why?

So, what is the truth of John McCain? The S&R staff discusses who exactly John McCain was and how he ought to be remembered. We find agreements in our disagreements and disagreements in our agreements, and if you’re a fan of the fine lost arts of discourse and reason, it’s for you.

Doc, leading off:

Look, feel how you want to. But John McCain was a man with an objective, verifiable record. There are opinions and then there are facts. We’ve talked about this before.

McMaverickstain voted with Trump nearly 85% of the time. His Trump Plus/Minus Score, which is the difference between how often he votes with Trump vs how often he’d be expected to vote with him based on Trump’s 2016 margin is a whomping +24.6%.

Wait a minute. Make that 94.4%.

How about opportunistic flip-flopping?

Remember the Rev. Hagee debacle?

Remember the flip-flopping over whether we’re a “Christian nation”?

John McCain is at it again. This time out he’s arguing, in an interview with Beliefnet, that the Constitution established the US as a “Christian nation” and he comes dangerously close to suggesting that only a Christian would be fit to be president (in fact, he seems to say just that before waffling and backpedaling into an answer designed to draw a bit less fire).

Then, of course, there was this.



I feel like a lot of people give the man a good deal of credit for the lip service he paid and are perhaps not as critical as they might be of what he did.

In the end, he was a guy who talked a lot of high-sounding shit, and then he fell in line.

Michael Smith (MS):

After he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he had the nerve to head back to the Senate to cast the deciding vote to open discussion on gutting the Affordable Healthcare Act. Even in time of dire need of medical attention, he couldn’t step outside of his own experience to contemplate what it must be like for someone with no health insurance to get news like that.

Dan Ryan (DR):

So while being venerated as a living symbol of freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he consistently and without guilt denied those precious commodities to others.

So, fuck him.

Cat White (CW):

John McCain had flashes of statesmanship and greatness, but those were fewer as he grew older. We probably would have seen less of them if it had not been for Trump. Yes, McCain voted to open the Obamacare debate but he voted against the outcome. Trump will NEVER forgive him for that.

McCain had big shoes to fill–his father who has a ship named for him. At Annapolis, in Vietnam, in the hands of the NVA, he had expectations to live up to–maybe impossible ones. But he managed. Read “The Nightingale’s Song” (a gift from a student years ago). There is a parallel with the Trump offspring. Don Jr. Political genius? Puh-lease. The best line I’ve seen about a lot of sketchy stuff that he does is that it’s all about an “audience of one”: Daddy. Maybe McCain would have understood that at one time.

At some point McCain fell apart and gave us Sarah Palin. Really? How does that square with any code of honor? In the middle of presidential aspirations, he may have hit his nadir. And he never really came back.

Perhaps he recognized how far he had fallen. His eulogies will be delivered by Obama and Bush II. Trump, I’d put money on, will be at his golf course this Saturday, not in attendance. If our Venter-in-Chief does not trash McCain this week, I’ll be surprised. Trump is losing a rally meme–unless he decides there is no respect for the dead.

Gavin Chait (GC):

And yet he was the only Republican willing to state, uncategorically, that Barack Obama was a real American and a good person. He was the only Republican willing to promote cross-party dialogue.

My Twitter timeline is filled with human rights defenders in as diverse places as the DRC, Syria and Mexico declaring that he was the only senator willing to meet with them and promote their causes in government, that – while this may not have gotten far in America’s dysfunctional politics – to be heard, acknowledged and recognised was powerful for them. That he was well-informed and knew of atrocities which they feared no-one would ever hear of. That he stood against torture. That he stood for refugees and human rights.

Maybe he wasn’t a perfect ideal of a politician, but do you think the Republican who replaces him will make Republicans more, or less, likely to collaborate with Democrats, to vote against torture and abuse?

In this group, which stands for a kind of flawed scholarship and roguery, we should recognise a person on the opposing side who – at the very least – still had time to listen and make attempts, no matter how doomed, to reach compromise.

There’s no-one left in the GOP who ever will.


Gavin, you’re right that he was the only one to say Obama was a real American and a good person. But that says less about him than it does the sad state of our political landscape. I mean, in what reasonable world should saying “my opponent is American and a decent human being” be anything more than table stakes?


He was also always happy to foment violent civil war, the sort of activity that invariably leads to human rights abuses, torture, etc. He wasn’t a friend to those people destroyed by war and the evil we (humans) do unto others. He was using them to forward his politics which always included supporting more war. As Sam said, he always fell into line.


Examples would be good, otherwise they’re ad hominem attacks. And the world is sufficiently full of those that we should aspire to do better.

Your experience of him inside the US may be different, but from outside, he was often the only US establishment politician willing to meet with human rights defenders in places like Ethiopia (joining Madeleine Albright in 2005 to protest abuses), Syria, Libya, Kosovo, and McCain’s Institute-led peace and economic development initiatives all over the world … and, obviously, his position on the state’s use of torture is well known.

So, yes, US politics are tribal and evil, but politics is also the “art of the possible,” a nauseous sausage-making process that carries the stench of ordure and corruption. I don’t believe any politician can remain at the top level for decades without being utterly consumed by the smell.

But he was also a Republican, which means that the mainstream view of the party – his party – was often opposed to what we Scrogues stand for. Separate out your loathing of Republican policies from McCain’s approach to law-making.

McCain was certainly flawed, but he did believe in compromise, he had steadfast human rights principles, and he would negotiate and work with people across party lines. Hell, pretty much the only US campaign finance reform of the last few decades is the McCain Feingold reform. It isn’t perfect, but it almost didn’t get passed at all, and it was a cross-party law.

I ask again … do you think his replacement will be more, or less, likely to work towards consensus? And does that make Republicans more, or less, brutal? And, given all that, isn’t it worth recognising the stamina and strength it took to fight so hard against his own party to keep that door of negotiated compromise open for so long?

And recognise, too, that it has now slammed shut.


One quick and recent example.

Also the guy who said “we’re all Georgians now” after Georgia started a war with Russia and McCain wanted in. Many of his Syrian friends have been tied to terrorist organizations.

It’s not enough to say the other regime is bad. It may be. But consistently supporting violent revolution is not a means to lessen human suffering. Especially if that support generally aligns with US geopolitical goals. He may well have wanted to make the world a better place, but only in so much as it would be the US’s world and whatever human suffering was necessary to achieve that was a worthwhile cost.

He may have been a moderate Republican of the old breed. Good for him, ok for us in some cases, and yes those days are gone. But at the end of the day, his war hero status was mostly because his father the admiral got him into the USNA and kept him in the air after any other pilot would have washed out. He understood the horror of torture, but only because he was voluntarily bombing civilians and got shot down. In all his days, he never managed to draw the connection between his own torture and war. The latter he remained a steadfast supporter of. It wasn’t long ago that he thought we should have more troops and a more open-ended strategy in Afghanistan … a war that has been lost for a solid 15 years.

I won’t go so far as he might (in the link he compares Quadafi to Hitler and Stalin), but no way in hell I’ll say he even approaches a great man. He was just another politician. Being better than the rest of them when it was convenient for him is the best I can do.


I’m with Lex on this, it’s like McCain met with and listened to the human rights defenders Gavin referred to only to look good for the press and to figure out how to fuck over said human rights defenders more effectively.

I don’t think we should pretend to have any problem speaking ill of the dead who so often and enthusiastically supported U.S. efforts to ruin or end the lives of so many innocent people in countries most of us will never even see.

Read this.

Brian Angliss (BA):

I view McCain as an honest and honorable man who was corrupted by staying too long in power. I see his story as the story of every single politician, maybe every human being, who rises to the top and stays there, eventually losing touch with the reality that life is a struggle for nearly everyone else. And I think that all of us would likely lose ourselves if we were in his shoes.

I think McCain didn’t realize the slow creep of authoritarianism that had taken over his party. Maybe I’m naive to think this, but I believe that he did eventually realize that the success of his party might well mean the destruction of the country for which he’d suffered so much. Too late, perhaps, for him to effect much repair.

I believe that in McCain we have a cautionary tale of a reasonably good man turned bad by a system that cannot help but sully even the best of us. A system that desperately needs to be reformed by good people willing to sully themselves for a few years knowing that, even as they find themselves covered in grime and muck, they have left the machine a little cleaner for those who follow.

Jim Booth (JB):

Well said, Brian. McCain’s story has elements of classical tragedy. A person who bought to become a statesman embraces politics, rises high, then is brought low by that he has embraced.

Here’s a simple “would you rather” test that can be applied to garner some sense of McCain’s worth in the political culture we live in. Use the above to ask yourself if you’d accept McCain as a replacement for one of your own senators. Given Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, for me the answer is an easy yes.

Flawed? Certainly. Worse than one’s own senators? In many, nay, most cases, I suspect the answer may be no.


I’d take McCain over Cory Gardner in a heartbeat. But Cory is so horrible that this is a really easy bar to clear.

I wouldn’t take McCain over Michael Bennet, however, and I’m not exactly a fan of Bennet – too conservative, too close to a 1980s Republican (like most of the Democratic Party these days, unfortunately).


That speaks more to the broken system than to the flawed man, imo.


I’m sure that some historians will say that McCain could do no wrong, others that he could do no right (from both liberals and conservatives), and a few will get the complexities, the good and the bad, more or less right and, more importantly, fair.

When people like McCain die, I’m reminded of “Speaker for the Dead,” an excellent novel written by homophobic asshole Orson Scott Card. In the novel, the main character is a Speaker for the Dead who tells nothing but the truth – good, bad, and indifferent – about the deceased. There are no value judgements made about the deceased, and the facts are spoken with no regard for whether they will cause pain or joy to the family, friends, and community.

I wonder what a Speaker for the Dead would say about McCain. The closest we have will be those books written by historians who strive to get it right and, most importantly, fair.

Jennie Ver Steeg (JVS):

Not related to his public life but germane to character.


Jennie, You went where I was going to go – his personal life. He was a jerk to women.

To his wife Cindy:

“Now, here it is — here is what John McCain said to Cindy McCain in 1992, during a prior campaign, in front of strangers and campaign workers and three members of the press:

At least I don’t plaster on the make-up like a trollop, you cunt.”

His nickname in high school and at the Naval Academy:

“In high school, McCain’s nicknames included “McNasty,” and for more than two decades, the overriding majority of his Senate colleagues, in both parties, have repaid his angry outbursts against them with active and unrelenting dislike.”

Also, anyone remember the Keating Five scandal?


It’s the system we have. Any system that reveres capitalism above any other organizing principle will give us what we have – a completely wretched not functioning government.

McCain could survive the Hanoi Hilton with a little dignity and self-respect, but he couldn’t survive the last 40 years of politics even as what Henry Adams called “the most powerful person on Earth – a US senator” with the same assets. “Cold are the crabs…” as Edward Lear reminds us.


But did he leave our country and the wider world a better place? Nice guys can fuck things up tremendously, while congenital assholes, LBJ comes to mind, can leave behind at least the promise of a better, more egalitarian U.S. than when they took office. But Johnson didn’t get us out of Vietnam, so there’s that black mark.


Thereby hangs the tragic tale, Dan. McCain, I think (and I’m giving him the benefit, I know) set out to leave the world a better place. I can’t think of anything he did that would qualify.

Johnson’s hubris made him think he could build a socialist state and feed the M/I complex at the same time. There’s a parable about being the servant of two masters that applies…..


“Being better than the rest of them” is what we’re reduced to now, being content with the least morally repugnant of numerous fuck-ups, con men, rabid anti-science religious zealots, homophobes, racists, bag men (and women) for big oil, big pharma, big agriculture, Monsanto, the NRA, and freedom-loving ultra-patriots who want to curtail or eliminate our freedoms so we don’t use them to hurt each other or make a ruckus while they fuck their mistresses, fondle little boys, and sell the U.S. to China and Russia by the metric tonne.

This where we are now, hip deep in oily quick sand with only rope woven from cooked spaghetti to hold on to. And in my view McCain didn’t do a damn thing to change any of this, and pretty much let it happen as Jim has suggested.

I need a Dr Pepper, ‘cause I don’t drink booze anymore to try and forget all this wretchedness. It didn’t work anyway.

Denny Wilkins (DW):

I think of McCain, as I do of so many “public” figures, as a mediated myth. McCain cultivated relationships with so many journalists over so many years. So is it any surprise that these cultivated relationships would produce the enhancements of myth built on the fabric of McCain’s actual life history?

I’ve been reading many of the tributes penned by these writers who were cultivated by McCain. Of course, “speak no ill of the dead” threads through them all.

But how many actually inspect the underpinnings of the myth vs. rigorously inspecting the man and his life’s work?

I wonder what the historians will say in the many books no doubt being considered now …

Kristen Kerns Wheeler (KKW):

My FB feed is filled with article/comments about McCain being a great patriot – being prior service, I have a lot of friends with military ties – and during Vietnam, he was a great patriot or at least a good sailor. That being said, there’s a lot about him wasn’t great. While he may have appeared to be a friend of the military, he was staunchly opposed to DADT and to allowing LGB (T wasn’t even a consideration at that point) to openly serve. He called it a “sad day” when legislation passed to allow open service and was certain that it would affect unit cohesion and readiness. Seven years later he appeared to stand up to Trump and fight to allow trans members to serve openly. Maybe facing his on death he was trying to make amends? Maybe having an out daughter finally got through to him that patriotism doesn’t give a damn about your race, sex, or orientation?

Does that make up for the rest of the shitty stuff he did? Not by a long shot. I lost any respect I had for him during the 2008 campaign. Between allowing Palin onto the national stage and his outright disrespect of Obama during the debates were the last straws.

Final thought: McCain and Bob Corker found it easy to say they were against 45 because they had nothing to lose, but when it comes to actions they fell in line because that’s what good soldiers do.


I don’t have a whole lot to add. There wasn’t an unnecessary war that he didn’t support. He supported the Republican agenda wholesale, including its steady shift rightward over the decades. He briefly moved in the right direction on climate change, and then shut up about it. His POW experience was brutal, yes, but that was true of lots of soldiers, and it’s not like he was captured in combat–he was bombing the hell out of the country. His support of veterans was mixed–he supported some Republican measures to increase health care for Iraq vets, for example, but voted against stronger Democratic legislation. His “maverick” reputation was a carefully cultivated one. And he gave us Sarah Palin. I will not mourn his loss.

And in case anyone wants some idea of what a hero looks like, here you go. You’re welcome.

Hugh Thompson, 62, Who Saved Civilians at My Lai, Dies


I suppose I spend a lot of time wondering why everyone doesn’t draw a line in the sand at what he did? Ye shall know them by their fruits, dammit.

I would be the last to argue against many of the things he verbally stood up for. If words were deeds I’d want him on Rushmore. But words are not deeds. As noted above, despite all the wonderful things his publicity folks tell us he stood for, he had a record. And note my links – he was voting with Trump ~95% of the time.

That is not the record of a maverick. It is not the record of a centrist old-time dealmaker. It is not the record of an honorable man. Note what Michael says at the top: “After he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he had the nerve to head back to the Senate to cast the deciding vote to open discussion on gutting the Affordable Healthcare Act.”

Even while dying of cancer he found the energy to crawl back to DC to be Trump’s bitch.

I’m sympathetic to what some of you say about the realities of being a good person in a sewer. Completely. I don’t know how a good person could last five minutes in Washington. I consider myself a moral person and I feel my soul eroding just thinking about the place.

But succumbing to the realities while fighting a good fight, that isn’t the same as only pretending to fight, right?


All this reminds me of two things. First, I hate ideological purity tests. Second, Jerzy Kozinski once noted that he escaped the Iron Curtain because life there consisted of going to cafes every night after work and talking politics night after night always with the same shadow hovering; the talking was pointless because they could effect no meaningful change in their governance. More and more our obsession with talking about politics feels like we’re now in that world that Kozinski escaped.


Now living in it? We always have lived in it, and by design. As I suggested back in 2007, “free speech” is perhaps the cleverest tool for repression in history.

Of course, that’s not really about McCain, per se, is it?


I think Kozinski was on to something. This is why I am trying like hell to spout off as little as possible, if at all, about politics on Twitter and Facebook.

I’m succeeding more than failing at this, which overall still means I’m failing.

Frank Balsinger (FB): 

It’s all been said. I didn’t fall for the end of life drama. For whatever little good he may have done, I’ll mostly remember the boost he gave to the Tea Party.


6 months ago, John McCain voted against a measure to curtail the barbaric slaughter of Yemen by the Saudis. The siege, the starvation, the cholera. Would it have passed merely on the strength of John McCain’s voice of righteousness? Nope. But that just means it was safe for him to stand for his principles of human rights (assuming he had them). Instead, he voted for tacit support of not only our ally’s inhumane behavior but our country’s active participation in it.

Politics is the art of the possible. It’s also the call of making what’s right possible. To stand behind the first in order to avoid the second is cowardice dressed in public relations.