McCain is still alive, but a week ago he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, requiring surgery to have a tumor removed. The news prompted an outpouring of grief and well-wishing from Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives alike, as well as a deluge of hagiographical pieces valorizing McCain as an American hero and all-around man of honor.
“His 2008 campaign against Barack Obama now looks like the very model of civility in the wake of Trump,” one Guardian columnist recently wrote.
The Washington Post editorial board declared its wish “for Washington and the world beyond to pause for a moment to absorb the example that Mr. McCain sets every day,” when in a time “where politicians will say just about anything at all, true or untrue, to gain an advantage,” McCain has stuck to his convictions and stayed in politics, not to win, but “to improve our world.” Pause for a moment to wipe the tears from your eyes.
Democrats gave him a standing ovation and even embraced him as he returned to the Senate. Meanwhile, liberal journalists sternly warned anyone within earshot to keep any McCain criticisms to themselves in this trying time.
This adulation has only intensified since last night, when McCain cast the deciding vote to kill the Obamacare repeal effort for at least the foreseeable future. The vote was dramatic, unexpected, and, for anyone who doesn’t want to see millions of people lose their healthcare, laudatory. The road to McCain’s “maverick moment” in opposing his own party on Obamacare repeal was long, and mostly filled with McCain positioning himself as an implacable opponent of Donald Trump even as he supported virtually everything the president did. His vote last night was quickly labelled “an act of heroism.”
There’s no doubt that McCain’s vote was crucial to halting the GOP’s incoherent and cruel seven year campaign to gut Obamacare. But let’s not overstate things.
McCain spent years attacking Obamacare, depicting it as a hyper-partisan piece of legislation written in secret and rammed through Congress, a description better suited to the GOP’s 2017-era series of health-care-repeal failures than Obama’s law. It was “a law that I fought against for weeks on end,” he bragged late last year. He likewise spent this time calling and voting for the law’s repeal and replacement with what he called “a free-market approach” to health care.
His 2016 reelection campaign revolved around aggressively opposing the law, while in in 2015, McCain voted for a Republican bill that, among other things, gutted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. (Not to worry, though — McCain assured reporters that while he would vote for the bill, it would “provide [him] with discomfort.”)
Which is not to mention the fact that McCain initially voted for the GOP’s most recent attempt at repeal, despite giving a much fawned-over speech denouncing the bill and how it had been put together. Or that McCain’s decision to vote against repeal and its monstrous consequences was the very least an ordinary, decent human being would have done in the same situation, particularly one who hours before had his life potentially saved by a publicly funded health-care plan. Or the fact that his switch came after widespread criticism decrying his hypocrisy. Or that two other Republicans, both women, were early and consistent “no” votes on repeal. And now the Washington Post tells us that McCain voted against the bill because he wasn’t sufficiently assured a “broad House-Senate negotiation for a wider rollback of the law” would follow.
Nonetheless, no matter how calculated and reluctant, McCain’s vote against repeal will add to his mythos and perpetuate the idea of him as an honorable, heroic caretaker of American decency, perpetually rising above the fray of petty partisanship to do what’s best. It will help to further encourage suppression of any legitimate reckoning of his actions and record.
We should resist such impulses. It’s not just that as a public figure with a great degree of power and influence, McCain and his legacy warrant criticism. But much as with Reagan, this late-life valorization distorts McCain’s actual political record, which is far from the heroic image now being shopped around.
In the last week, some have pointed to McCain’s manufactured “maverick” image. Others have pointed to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent lives that McCain has helped extinguish through his unfluctuating support for any and every war.
Clearly, his policy record is abominable. But since so much of the veneration of McCain is focused on decorum and civility, I want to focus on another topic: his repugnant 2008 presidential campaign.
How Dangerous, How Dishonorable
In the wake of the news of his brain cancer, one of the most frequently shared pieces of McCain-related media was this 2008 video of McCain defending Obama, his Democratic opponent, against the anger and bigotry of McCain’s own supporters. The video was shared by a number of journalists and others as evidence of McCain’s essential decency, honor, and integrity.
“I’ll always respect John McCain for this moment,” wrote one. “He spoke against the idiots and crazies. It was the right thing to do.” “There was a time when presidential candidates were magnanimous,” wrote another. “Thanks Senator McCain.”
He was “a principled man” who “fought on issues, not on slandering anyone he don’t agree with,” wrote others, adding that “today’s GOP should follow his heroic example.” The incident was “one of the most heroic moments of McCain’s career,” opined one columnist.
There’s an implicit critique of Donald Trump in these statements: unlike Trump, who gleefully riles up his most hateful supporters, McCain fought to elevate the public discourse and spoke out against his own voters’ baser instincts.
The only problem is, none of it is true.
Let’s give McCain the benefit of the doubt and assume that in the incident shown in the 2008 video McCain assumed the woman labeling Obama an “Arab” meant it as code for “terrorist,” rather than that he was implying Arabs aren’t decent people. This reflects well on McCain. But this came after a week of intense, desperate, and concerted dog-whistling in which McCain and his surrogates all-but-called Obama a foreign terrorist, riling up a segment of his supporters in a spectacularly Trump-like fashion.
What’s more, the McCain campaign’s effort to “other” Obama continued well past this point. In fact, McCain’s racist ’08 campaign probably helped produce Trump’s political career. These details are worth recounting not as a defense of Obama — whose legacy on a wide range of issues deserves harsh and continued criticism — but as a way of understanding just how wrong the current round of McCain veneration is.
When the general campaign started, McCain, still haunted by memories of the notoriously dirty South Carolina campaign that had derailed his 2000 run, certainly seemed to want to run a campaign that wasn’t incredibly racist. He ruled out attacking Obama on his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, condemning the North Carolina Republican Party for an ad on the subject, and stating that “all I can do is, in as visible a way as possible, disassociate myself from that kind of campaigning.”
When a conservative radio host used Obama’s middle name, Hussein, three times while disparaging him in a speech introducing McCain at a rally, McCain held a press conference reaffirming Obama’s integrity while condemning and apologizing for the remarks, promising “it will never happen again.”
This attitude lasted roughly as long as McCain remained competitive in the polls with Obama, at which point the campaign went on the attack. At first, it stuck to the usual staid lines — Obama was naive and inexperienced.
But as the advent of the financial crisis, and his erratic response, sent McCain tumbling in the polls, the campaign got desperate.
In early October, the campaign rolled out a strategy to aggressively assail Obama on his character and personal affiliations.
The next week would see a constant barrage of attacks from McCain and, especially, from his running mate Sarah Palin, who painted Obama as alien, un-American, and suspect.
The campaign already had some practice in this approach. In April, McCain had first raised the matter of Obama’s acquaintance with Bill Ayers, former member of the Weather Underground and longtime Chicago educator, only a few days after his deputy campaign manager sent out a fundraising email attacking Obama for receiving praise from a Hamas official. (Ironically, an al Qaeda supporter would later urge the group to help McCain win, because his implacable love of war meant it would be easier to succeed in “exhausting America.”)
But in October, the campaign went into racist overdrive. It could never come right out and give credence to the ludicrous rumors that were being passed around in right-wing circles about Obama: for instance, that he was secretly a Muslim terrorist, or a foreign radical out to overthrow the US government. Instead, by repeatedly linking him to “terrorists” and suggesting he had a tenuous to non-existent connection to America and its values, the campaign merely winked at it. Like any good dog whistle, the trick was letting the listener hear what they believed they already knew.
“This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America,” Sarah Palin said at a fundraiser. “Our opponent is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
Soon after, when Obama criticized McCain’s health-care plan, calling it “radical,” the campaign’s spokesman put out a statement charging that Obama had no right to use that word “on a day when new reports have surfaced about Barack Obama’s long association with a domestic terrorist.” “The American people know radical when they hear it, and John McCain is not the candidate in this election they should be concerned about,” he said.
McCain himself got in on the action, with vaguely racist insinuations about Obama becoming part of his stump speech. At one point he warned that the campaign had returned “$33,000 in illegal foreign funds from Palestinian donors.”
“Look, we don’t care about an old, washed-up terrorist,” McCain told three thousand people at a campaign stop in Wisconsin. “We need to know the full extent of the relationship because of whether Senator Obama is telling the truth to the American people or not.”
The campaign then called up a local New York GOP politician, John Murtagh, to put out a statement on Ayers. Murtagh’s family home had been firebombed decades before while his father presided over a trial of Black Panther members, which the Weather Underground had been suspected, though never proved, to be involved in. “Barack Obama’s friend tried to kill my family,” Murtagh charged in the statement, which was distributed by the campaign.
The campaign sent out flyers plastered with a mugshot of Ayers and the words, “Terrorist. Radical. Friend of Obama.” An introductory speaker at one campaign rally made sure to repeatedly say Obama’s full name, telling the crowd to “think about how you’ll feel on November 5 if you see the news that Barack Obama, Barack Hussein Obama, is president of the United States.” He wasn’t the only campaign speaker to do so. But unlike McCain’s previous full-throated repudiation of such dog-whistling, the campaign now sent out a limp disavowal of the “inappropriate rhetoric” via email. Hardly the stuff of maverick heroism.
These insinuations carried over into the campaign’s TV spots, which featured ominous voiceovers warning viewers over a foreboding soundtrack that Obama could not be trusted (“Who is Barack Obama?” one gravely wondered), and reminding them of his supposed terrorist connections. “How dishonorable,” went one spot. “How dangerous.”
Variations on these racialized ideas had of course preceded the McCain campaign, floating around in the darker reaches of the Right. The idea that Obama was a secret Muslim-cum-communist bent on overthrowing American democracy was advanced on fringe websites, internet forums, and email chains your uncle sent you. But this was the first time that the GOP candidate had given credence to the rumors by giving the fringe theories what could charitably be described as a sly wink in public.
The accusations worked to whip McCain’s crowds into a frenzy, with crowd members often yelling things like “Treason!,” “Traitor!,” “Terrorist!” “Off with his head!,” and “Kill him!,” At one campaign stop, when McCain asked who the real Obama was for the umpteenth time, a woman yelled, “He is a bomb,” while another man registered his fear that “socialists are taking over the country.” At another rally, the crowd turned on the press, hurling abuse and obscenities at reporters and a camera crew, with one man yelling at a black sound man to “sit down, boy.”
A number of McCain’s former Republican allies registered their disgust with his tactics, with one writing him an open letter warning that if “your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence.”
This was the context for the supposedly brave and decent stand McCain took in that infamous video. It wasn’t an act of honor — McCain was horrified at the runaway train he had set in motion and wanted off.
Except that’s not quite true, either. Because even after McCain reassured the crowd of people he had spent a week terrifying that they had nothing to fear, the campaign continued to advance the idea that Obama was somehow dangerous.
Mostly, this was by suggesting that Obama’s staid, centrist vision was actually a form of secret Marxism, an absurd idea whose real meaning was to signal that Obama was alien and un-American.
“He hopes that you will not notice how radical his ideas are,” Palin told a crowd a day after the incident in the video. Based on an offhand comment Obama made about how “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody” because businesses have more customers, McCain and Palin both accused Obama of being a socialist — an accusation that seems bizarre now after the Bernie Sanders campaign, but was potent in 2008, when much of the public had little familiarity with any semblance of social democracy.
“At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,” McCain said in a radio address. He amusingly accused Obama of being “more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.” “Now we know that the slogans ‘change you can believe in’ and ‘change we need’ are code words for Barack Obama’s ultimate goal: ‘redistributive change’,” said McCain’s top economics adviser.
Not that McCain and his campaign ceased the earlier accusations. In a conference call with reporters, one of McCain’s national security advisers rattled off a list of “villains” who supposedly supported Obama, such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas.
McCain even hired one of the same firms that had organized the robocalls against him in 2000 to run similarly scurrilous robocalls against Obama. One warned that “Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers” and that Democrats were planning “an extreme leftist agenda,” while another cautioned that “Obama and his fellow Democrats aren’t who you think they are,” and that they wanted to “give civil rights to terrorists.”
On top of this, similar to Trump, McCain began insinuating that the election result was being rigged in Obama’s favor as the campaign reached its final weeks. The campaign ran an ad (opening with the familiar refrain “Who is Barack Obama?”) accusing Obama of having “deep ties” to the now-defunct community-activist organization ACORN, which the ad charged with “intimidation tactics” and “massive voter fraud.” (The actual crime had been minor voter registration fraud, which did not affect the elections and simply involved low-level ACORN employees pretending to sign fake people up to vote in order to get paid more. The Right used these minor incidents to declare an eventually successful war on the group.)
In the final presidential debate, McCain himself warned that ACORN was “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
The Real John McCain
The adoration suddenly being showered on McCain across the political spectrum is as unsurprising as it is unwarranted. The McCain of the 2008 campaign, which is now ironically touted as his finest hour, wasn’t a man of honor — he was a man who used racism and absurd accusations of terrorist sympathies to try to win an election.
What makes this current veneration particularly odd is that a significant amount of it is coming from those who view themselves as implacable opponents of Trump. Yet the McCain campaign’s October 2008 rallies, with their incitement of rage, bigotry, and open hostility to the press, were in many ways the forerunners of Trump’s own campaign eight years later.
Trump no doubt received at least some inspiration for his own public attacks on Obama’s Americanness in 2011 from the McCain campaign’s not-so-sly insinuations three years earlier. He was paying attention, after all — Trump endorsed McCain in 2008.
Obama deserved plenty of legitimate criticism in the 2008 campaign — and several orders of magnitude more during his time in office. But none of those critiques came from John McCain. One doesn’t have to revel in McCain’s illness to believe the current praise he is awash in is a distorted picture of his actual record.
If one believes Trump’s political career has been a cynical appropriation of far-right tropes for electoral success, as many do, then it makes little sense to treat McCain as a hero when he did the same. Who is the real John McCain? He already told us in October 2008.