John McCain’s diagnosis of incurable brain cancer rightly sends us back in time—back to stories of his heroism, character, and decency that contrast just a teeny bit with the behavior of a lying, draft-dodging president who once described sexually transmitted diseases as “my personal Vietnam.”
A big question right now in American politics is whether McCain will use that contrast—and the enhanced stature that his diagnosis has brought him—to do a couple of big things with the time he has left. The future of the Russia probe, the health care debate, and the soul of the Republican Party may hang in the balance.
Fifty years ago, on July 29, 1967, Navy Lt. Cmdr. McCain was strapped into his single-seat A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft, awaiting launch off the carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin. Suddenly an electrical malfunction caused a rocket to fly across the flight deck and hit a fuel tank a few feet away. McCain escaped the cockpit with only seconds to spare, rolled through the flames and went to help another pilot before the fire detonated a huge bomb, which flung him back 10 feet. The conflagration killed 134 sailors and airmen and injured scores more in the worst blaze aboard a ship since World War II.
This was neither McCain’s first nor his last brush with death. Seven years before, while in training, his AD-6 Skyraider had crashed into Corpus Christi Bay, and he had to squeeze out of the cockpit and swim to the surface. And in 1965, engine failure in his trainer jet forced him to eject over Virginia.
Then, on Oct. 26, 1967, four months after the Forrestal incident, during his 23rd perilous mission over North Vietnam, the wing of his A-4 was blown off by anti-aircraft fire, and he parachuted into a lake in central Hanoi. Badly wounded, he was pulled to shore, where he was kicked and spat on. Thus began a captivity that included repeated torture and long periods of isolation. McCain’s sense of honor led him to refuse a North Vietnamese offer to send him home early and out of turn (for propaganda purposes) because he was the son of an admiral. He remained a POW for five and a half years.
Aggressive brain cancer is a different kind of mortal threat—worse than the serious bout with melanoma McCain survived a few years ago. But he has already given notice that he isn’t going anywhere for now. “Unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” he tweeted on Thursday.
The big question: Stand by for what?
“He’s the lion of the Senate and he’ll do what he can to protect the pride—the country—from enemies foreign and domestic,” John Weaver, McCain’s friend and chief strategist in 2000, told me. Weaver, who last year ran John Kasich’s presidential campaign and is fiercely anti-Trump, doesn’t speak officially for McCain. But he and Mark Salter, another anti-Trump former senior aide who ghost-wrote his fine books, have had a kind of mind-meld with their boss over the years.
“Every institution that matters in society—the press, the courts, the opposition parties, the right to free speech and to demonstrate—is under threat,” Weaver says. “He [Trump] has no respect for any of it—anyone but Putin—and it’s dangerous.”
Some critics wonder why McCain hasn’t yet used language like that, as Mitt Romney did during the 2016 campaign. After all, Trump—who received a Vietnam era draft deferment for bone spurs even though he was an active athlete at the time—said of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
As despicable as that line was, the result was even worse. For the duration of the campaign, it defanged McCain, who couldn’t attack Trump without seeming to be motivated by personal grievance. That would have hurt him in the Arizona GOP Senate primary when he was running for reelection last year. While he’s a black belt in insults, Trump isn’t likely smart enough to have intended to sideline McCain this way, but it had that effect.
This was ironic. If you analyze American politics on a scale with impersonal on one end—a belief that what matters is substance—and personal ties as the essence of the craft on the other, Barack Obama and McCain represent the extremes. Obama never understood that phony Washington friendships are the grease of the system; McCain believes, to amend Tip O’Neill, that all politics is personal.
Those relationships haven’t always gone well for McCain during his 30 years in the Senate. When he launched his 2000 presidential campaign, I spoke on background to several of his Republican colleagues who disliked him intensely, in part because he would say exactly what he thought of them to their faces. During the debate over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform package, McCain and Mitch McConnell fought bitterly. McCain had better relations with Democrats like fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry, who worked closely with him to normalize relations with Vietnam and—over the objections of the Bush Administration—to ban torture. In 2004, Kerry nearly convinced McCain to switch parties and join him on the Democratic ticket.
Even after he lost the affection of Democrats by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 and opposing most Obama initiatives, McCain has remained an unreliable vote for McConnell and the GOP caucus. He isn’t as much of a maverick as Democrats would like, but still strays from the party line more than almost any other Republican senators, on environmental regulation of methane, AmeriCorps (which the Trump budget eliminates entirely) and other issues.
Now Republicans are calling McCain their “beloved” colleague, we’re about to find out how far that love and respect extends.
For the last year, McCain has traveled the world raising alarms about Vladimir Putin and reassuring anxious allies that Trump’s pro-Putin and nationalist views don’t represent the United States. After one trip, he hand-delivered to the FBI the salacious Steele dossier detailing Trump’s contacts with Russians—proof that he wants to get to the bottom of any collusion. He got confused during one hearing on the Russia probe (possibly as a result of the brain tumor) but spoke out against the prospect of Trump firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller. With a few choice words now, McCain could make it harder for Trump to ever do so.
On health care, McCain has been talking privately for weeks about the need for hearings, regular order and genuine deliberation instead of McConnell’s strategy of jamming a bill through. Now that the Senate is back to square one, McCain will—depending on his attendance—be the real or at least honorary leader of a bipartisan effort to fix the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it. He’s not much interested in health care policy but may be remembered in part as the senator who brought the parties together to do what the country wanted.
The broader question is whether McCain can help his Republican colleagues pass the great character test of their careers, a test most are now flunking. Their children and grandchildren will ask: Did you put country over party and stand up against Trump?
John McCain’s 2008 slogan in his presidential campaign was “Country First.” He’s run his last race and his days are numbered. He knows that Donald Trump is a threat to the republic—and to Republicans. If he has the strength, it’s a good bet he will say so in different ways in the months ahead, and urge others in both parties to do the same.