Monday, August 27, 2018

A life of light and burning:
John McCain (1932-2018)

IN A NEW York speech in 1888, James Russell Lowell, refuted a once-abiding notion about the nation's prime operational document: “[A]fter our Constitution got fairly into working order, it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the Civil War itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Lowell, a poet, philosopher, critic and founding editor of The Atlantic, of course knew better, understood perhaps intuitively that the Constitution needs constant care and vigilant maintenance, that the “machine that would go of itself” was always subject to the whims and wiles of anarchists posing as mechanics. Lowell got that.

John Sidney McCain III got that too.

When the senior Arizona Republican senator, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and veteran of the House and the Senate died in Arizona on Aug. 25, days short of his 82nd birthday, the machinery of the American government lost one of its most capable goodwrenches, a lawmaker who brought integrity, intelligence, passion and (not least of all in a body that could use it) a sense of humor to the process of American governance. He could be infuriatingly infuriating. He was more often, more consistently, infuriatingly original.

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I won’t greatly go into McCain’s life in the military, or his time as a Navy pilot, or the five years, four months and 16 days he spent wounded and broken at Hỏa Lò Prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton), a time and a period that solidified his sense of purpose and a fierce drive to survive the worst of circumstances. More, better, and more detailed writing has been devoted to that pivotal phase of his life.

I’m focused here on what came next: his time as a public servant on the battlefield of politics. For much of that time, McCain hewed the party line, did so well and often enough to have served for 35 years in Congress, 31 years as a senator. But there was an independent streak that ran deep. Sometimes his “Maverick” tag was richly deserved, other times not so much.

On the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell issue, in October 2010, McCain said “I will filibuster or stop it [a repeal] from being brought up until we have a thorough and complete study on the effect of morale and battle effectiveness,” he said, in a stalling action that couldn’t have been more transparent. He called the day of the repeal’s passage “a very sad day.”

It was during that debate, of course, that he flat-out told ABC News: “I obviously have always been opposed to gay marriage.” Later that year, he came out against the DREAM Act, which granted conditional residency for immigrants brought to the United States as young children. In late 2014, he came out against Obama administration efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. And going very far off the rails, McCain accused President Obama directly for the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings.

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BUT THOSE generally ritual partisan reflexes ultimately gave way to something bigger, grander, wider.

In December 2014, McCain backed releasing to the public the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. Conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it nonetheless.”

On July 25, 2017, in the midst of the furious debate over the health-care bill vote, McCain arrived in the well of the United States Senate and made an epic, 13-minute speech that should be a template for achieving deliberation and consensus in Congress.

On July 28, three days later, he returned to the Senate floor and cast the deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” bid to overturn Obamacare — a vote at odds with nearly all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate — in dramatic fashion befitting, well, a maverick.

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In August 2017, with a lapidary op-ed piece he wrote in The Washington Post, McCain put the toxic political discourse in perspective: “Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.

“That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.

“It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.

“That has never been truer than today, when Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct. We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people.”

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WRITING IN The Daily Beast of Aug. 25, John Avlon offered a trenchant remembrance of McCain that doubled as informed speculation on how the national trajectory would have changed If McCain had been president:

“It’s worth reflecting on how different the trajectory of modern America would have been if McCain had prevailed in 2000. Polls showed that the general election would not have been close, with McCain’s deep appeal to independent voters likely sparing the nation from a Supreme Court decision resolving a popular and electoral vote split. Despite positioning himself as the anti-Slick Willie, McCain would have continued the centrism that Bill Clinton ushered into office while corralling the far right. After 9/11, he would have been a pitch-perfect national father figure because of his personal sacrifice and military service. -- ”

We have to stop Avlon right there because of one implicit assumption he makes, innocently enough. In this scenario, 9/11 would have happened, right on schedule. I’d respectfully suggest that this wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.

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One of the probable triggers for 9/11, defined by inaction rather than action, had to do with President George W. Bush taking his eye off the ball — failing to investigate the possibilities of a terrorist attack, possibilities that the President’s Daily Brief alerted him to as early as Aug. 6, 2001, when Bush received a classified intelligence memo titled, 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' which warns that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack.

From the brief:

“We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ---- service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

“Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”

And there were warnings before then. In September 2012, Kurt Eichenwald of The New York Times reported: “The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001.”

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IT IS absolutely inconceivable that President John McCain would have been so cavalier about ignoring a threat like that. Given his posture as a reliable hawk, a vigilant defender of America and its interests with the gravitas of military experience, a President McCain would have surely assessed the threat more closely and attentively, and done what he could — everything he could — to head it off.

That enhanced Oval Office scrutiny alone might have been enough to suggest to bin Laden: No, better call it off for now, and maybe for the foreseeable future. This president, and his capable associates, are paying far too much attention.

Absent the catalyst domino of 9/11, it’s fully plausible that we’d have been spared the ruinous invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003, and the loss of perhaps as much as $2.4 trillion, according to a October 2007 Congressional Budget Office estimate. To say nothing of the 6,830 American deaths, 1 million Americans wounded ... and the estimated 200,000+ civilian deaths from those wars.

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The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (a man McCain is said to have greatly admired), once observed: “What is to give light must endure burning.” There have been few public lives in the recent national memory that have been such interplays of light and burning, of brightness and darkness, as John McCain’s.

He could be deeply infuriating. He got on my last nerve more than once, especially in the heat of the 2008 campaign, when it seemed that he tiptoed right up to the edge of decorum in dealing with a challenger — Barack Obama — who was more up to the game of presidential politics than he was. He was mischievous and deeply original.

Even in his passing, he never lost his capacity for surprise. Within days of his death on Aug. 25, it was reported that McCain, tireless champion of the right, would have as a pallbearer none other than Warren Beatty, longtime supporter of liberal causes (and a longtime friend of the actor-director).

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BUT JOHN McCain was at his best when he did his best, and he did his very best in the United States Senate. Fate and coincidence are strange bedmates: McCain died nine years to the day after Ted Kennedy, the legendary Massachusetts Democrat and a fellow longtime prowler of the Senate savannah. The coincidences extend beyond that. One is tragically temporal: Both men died of glioblastoma multiforme, a rare, aggrressive and incurable brain cancer.

The other is political fate: Both men sought the presidency, both were rebuffed. But both Kennedy and McCain would probably come to make the greatest impact on this country, their most resonant contributions, by not attaining the White House, and by engaging each other as genial deliberative adversaries who refused to engage in politics as bloodsport or see each other as enemies.

With McCain’s passing, we may have well seen the last of the Senate’s passionate orators, unafraid to ruffle the $100 haircuts in Congress, regardless of what side of the aisle they sat on, and equally unafraid to go before citizens at town halls and tell them, no, no ma’am, he’s not an Arab, he’s not your objectified Other, we just have different ideas.

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South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham praised him to the skies on the floor of the Senate, and as long as McCain had been in the Senate, Graham should have company. But in the important ways, that doesn’t matter — and McCain would say so himself.

What matters is the willingness of Graham and the other senators to respond to McCain’s powerful challenge, the mother of congressional gauntlet throwdowns he offered in July 2017:

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood. ...

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THIS PLACE is important,” he observed. “The work we do is important. Our strange rules and seemingly eccentric practices that slow our proceedings and insist on our cooperation are important. Our founders envisioned the Senate as the more deliberative, careful body that operates at a greater distance than the other body from the public passions of the hour.

“We are an important check on the powers of the Executive. Our consent is necessary for the President to appoint jurists and powerful government officials and in many respects to conduct foreign policy. Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equal! ...

“The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country — this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country — needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”

Image credits: McCain top: NBC News. McCain magazine cover: © 2000 Time. McCain and Warren Beatty (detail): Kevin Winter/Getty Images. McCain and Ted Kennedy: via LA Progressive. McCain bottom: Senate photograph (public domain).

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