Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will be the 34th person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor reserved for a select group of men and women who led highly distinguished lives displaying unusual heroism, courage and devotion in service to the American republic.
He will thus join the likes of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, along with Rosa Parks, Billy Graham and unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
And, like every one of those who preceded him in the honor, McCain combined in one person traits that are easily admired but also weaknesses and some ugliness that, to a greater or lesser degree, are found in every man and woman.
The good. There is no doubt that McCain was a genuine American war hero.
He was shot down on a bombing mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam in 1967 when a Soviet-supplied ground-to-air missile blew a wing off his Navy A4 Skyhawk ground attack jet.
McCain ejected and landed in a lake in the center of Hanoi, breaking both arms and his right knee in the process. He was beaten and stabbed in the foot by the North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who dragged him from the lake. And that was only the beginning of nearly six years of horrendous treatment in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.
The torture methods used by the North Vietnamese included keeping the POWs in solitary confinement most of the time and subjecting them to extreme pain that worsened injuries inflicted by guards or suffered in combat before their capture. The POWs famously learned to communicate with each other despite their solitary confinement, using a form of Morse Code.
In the frequent beatings that McCain and the other POWs often endured, his left arm and three ribs were broken. The rebroken arm never healed properly, and his injuries and malnutrition in captivity left him permanently unable to remove a suit jacket without pained effort. He also walked with a distinctly hobbled gait.
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When the North Vietnamese discovered McCain was the son and grandson of famous Navy admirals, they sought to use him for propaganda purposes. At one point, he signed a statement admitting to unspecified “black crimes,” an act that was the most humiliating of his life.
But when the North Vietnamese offered McCain an early release and an end to the torture and pain, he refused, knowing that many of his fellow POWs had been imprisoned longer, some for as long as three years, and suffered more than he had.
That singular act of redemptive refusal is what most people likely think of when referring to McCain as a war hero. Whatever else he may or may not have done or been in his life, choosing to continue to suffer with his fellow POWs demonstrated the American spirit at its best.
The bad. McCain’s voting record in Congress was generally that of a moderate conservative, somewhat in the mold of his professed political hero, Ronald Reagan. But McCain often seemed determined to prove his independence by taking positions and casting votes he knew would outrage conservatives. No wonder former Human Events editor Jed Babbin described McCain as an “apostate conservative.”
The legislation for which he is most remembered is the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Conservatives opposed the measure because they believed it represented an incumbent protection act that entrenched senators and representatives who were controlled by special interests.
Even more serious were the constitutional concerns conservatives voiced about McCain-Feingold. The measure made it illegal to advertise for or against a candidate for weeks prior to an election and set limits on how much any individual could contribute to a candidate, incumbent or challenger.
The legislation also turned the Federal Election Commission into a bureaucratic arbiter of campaign practices that conservatives feared could be abused for partisan advantage or partisan punishment that would subvert democratic elections.
Much to the surprise of many of McCain-Feingold’s conservative critics, the Supreme Court upheld the measure and it remains in force today. But in its Citizens United decision in 2010, the high court effectively addressed one of the conservative critique’s main concerns, ruling that campaign contributions and advocacy are protected speech under the First Amendment.
Even more frustrating to conservatives than McCain-Feingold was McCain’s casting the deciding vote in 2017 against a measure repealing Obamacare. McCain had vigorously opposed the Democrats’ government-run health care program proposed by President Barack Obama, joining 38 colleagues in voting no on final passage in 2010.
McCain had also promised during his final re-election campaign in 2016 to vote to repeal Obamacare, as virtually every Republican in the country had promised. But when it came down to a vote in the Senate on a repeal measure muscled through by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, McCain was on the wrong side.
“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote,” he said in a statement issued shortly after the vote.
“We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people.”
Not a few conservatives believed McCain’s vote had nothing to do with restoring regular order and everything to do with defying President Donald Trump, with whom the Arizonan had become entangled in a bitter feud.
The ugly. Soldiers coming home from war zones with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have become a far more familiar phenomena in recent years, especially with the frequency of military personnel serving multiple tours of combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When McCain came home in 1972, however, the terrible long-term psychological effects of being a POW in North Vietnam weren’t nearly as well understood. High divorce rates among the former POWs were described within five years of their return.
But there was nothing to indicate, at least in the public record, that McCain’s 1980 divorce from his first wife, Carol, was connected to his POW years.
“He was looking for a way to be young again, and that was the end of that,” Carol McCain told People magazine earlier this year. “I didn’t know anything about it, I had no idea what was going on, I was pretty much blindsided and it broke my heart.”
What Carol McCain didn’t know was that her famous husband had met somebody else the year before in Hawaii. Cindy McCain, who was at his side Saturday when he died, was 25 years old when she married John, who was then 43. The two were married two weeks after his divorce from Carol McCain was granted.
“He introduced himself to me and I just didn’t know what to expect. What I saw was this incredible human being that was a lot of fun to be around,” Cindy McCain told People of her first encounter with her future husband.
“I really didn’t think he’d propose. He was older. I knew he cared very deeply for me. I did know that,” she told People.
Doug McCain, one of Carol’s sons whom John McCain adopted in 1965, told People the divorce “left a bad taste in my mouth ’cause I knew it wasn’t what my mother wanted. By the same token you know that sometimes things are beyond your control. I think the divorce rates among the POWs were extraordinarily high, so in hindsight it’s probably not unexpected.”
Judging by Carol McCain’s comments reported earlier this year by People, time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it often does ease at least some of the pain.
“A lot of people tried to get me to say bad things about him during that time,” she told the makers of a film on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “And I was like, ‘Are you crazy? I would never do that. You don’t know me or you wouldn’t ask me. I mean, I love the man. I would never do anything to harm him in any way. I am very sad that he is going to be leaving us in the next year. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not fair.”