An Ambivalent Lament for John McCain

At the 2000 Republican National Convention, John McCain gave a particularly somber speech. Quoting Tocqueville, he said he was, like all Americans, “haunted by visions of what will be.” Eighteen years later, here we are. 

I’ve probably spent more time thinking about John McCain than I’ve spent thinking about any other political figure. He was the subject of my MA thesis and two articles. So I’m surprised not to feel strong emotions. In many ways, McCain — more specifically, the type of politics that McCain stood for — already died for me over these past eight years. 

I started studying McCain during the 2008 election. My underlying question was: How did this figure who I found so noble circa 2000-2002 (right as I was becoming politically conscious in the age of 9/11) fall so far in my estimation? More importantly, why did I feel so conflicted about disliking him? Did this conflict reflect ways that he had changed — or ways that I had changed? The answer, of course, was both.

McCain had a persona perfectly-crafted for a political moment. Following the rancor of the Gingrich/impeachment era, his appeal (like Bill Bradley’s) to the transcendent idea of mutual civility and respect sounded quite lovely. The romanticizing of Straight Talk Express-McCain, circa 2000, was about trying to recover some lost type of politics associated with New Deal liberalism, a time when party lines weren’t quite so ideological. 

Over the next eight years, McCain sold his soul, while Barack Obama–beginning with his 2004 convention speech–stole his best argument. The bipartisan, transcendent, “we should all engage each other respectfully” shtick of Obama’s 2004 speech–that’s the sort of thing McCain had run on in 2000, and he tried to run on it again in 2008. But Obama made the case better, and more believably. After falling into line with Bush in 2004, McCain’s appeal felt disingenuous…. especially after the unforgivable choice of Sarah Palin. 

As the Obama years went on, McCain — a figure with more moral capital than virtually anyone else in Washington — withheld it time and again. Meanwhile, Obama continued speaking the language of bipartisanship, even as his opponents became more and more recalcitrant and obnoxious and odious. Both men reminded me of a character in Michael Frayn’s play Noises Off: she knows the lines perfectly, but can’t adapt as the rest of the play falls apart around her. They just kept delivering the same script, even as chaos erupted.

So when McCain gave his ACA speech, shortly before the famous “thumbs down” moment, I felt a certain… emptiness. Here was a speech that struck every emotional chord that once attracted me to McCain as a political figure, and none of it resonated. It wasn’t because it seemed duplicitous — I cannot read his mind and have no reason to doubt his sincerity. 

The speech felt empty because I had changed. I had seen our politics chew up and spit out two figures who appealed to the better angels of our deliberative natures. I had seen how the appeal to “hearing out both sides” could be coopted to move us rapidly into a culture that gives a “fair hearing” to Nazis. I’ve realized McCain (and Obama’s) rhetorical defense of democracy and civility served mainly to lull us into a complacency about how reasonable our culture is. 

What I know now is that speaking out about “decency” and “civility” isn’t enough — not when it gives voice to the horribly indecent; not when it shuts out legitimate discontent that can only be heard when it’s “uncivil.” I had learned — no doubt through my experiences teaching in post-Katrina Louisiana and reading, reading, reading — that I was drawn to McCain and Obama’s paeans to civility due to my own unexamined privilege. 

Yet just like in 2008, there persists an odd conflictedness — an inability to hate John McCain. Part of that’s bound up in the affinities I had eighteen years ago that, though long gone, still live in nostalgic memory. The bigger part, though, is that he left behind a written and verbal record of a decades-long struggle to define who he was, one crafted against the backdrop of a political party gone mad. He (with speechwriter Mark Salter) made the art of constructing political character — as a narrative, cohesive, artistic text — into a priority and a centerpiece of his politics. 

Even if that character was riddled with flaws, even if it was a fiction, it had a symbolic weight that will not quickly dissolve. It will linger, as all powerful fictions do.