Aug 30, 20184m read
The Dispute Over Senator John McCain’s Legacy
By Ben Szurek
On Saturday, Senator John McCain died at the age of 81 following a year-long battle with brain cancer and a final decision to stop treatment. The days following his death have seen messages of praise for the late Senator in nearly every corner of the media, as well as from the politicians and aides who worked with him, for him, or against him. On the internet, however, the response to McCain’s death has been, at times, opposite in tone to that of the mainstream media.
Hours after the announcement of McCain’s death, one Twitter user tweeted: “Before making fun of John McCain, remember that he was a true American. He put his life on the line for an imperialist war, then came back and spent his entire career serving the interests of the rich.”
Another said this: “John McCain, thank you for trying to make it up to Vietnam by killing as many Americans as possible when you returned.”
Other comments surfaced on social media – more profane, but no less critical of the fallen politician.
In the age of social media, online abuse and irreverent responses to the misfortunes of others occur so frequently that they rarely merit serious consideration. However, while one could dismiss these Twitter critics as negligible internet trolls – faceless contrarians hiding behind self-created avatars – their jabs bring to light the complicated reality of the late Senator’s legacy. McCain, after all, was more than a politician. As the many messages shared in his praise bear witness to, McCain’s public image approached an ideal: the ideal of the American Statesman. With such high-esteem comes honor and a place for McCain in the canon of American politics. But it also comes with controversy, close examination, and a reckoning with the impact of his life and career.
To his admirers: McCain was a model of dignity, decorum, and valor, going all the way back to when he first stepped into the limelight. The American public first heard the name John McCain in 1967, when the Senator – then just a young Navy pilot – was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Given special attention as the son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain’s captors made him record an interview with a French journalist immediately after they had set bones broken in his plane crash, and after which they beat him for not expressing enough gratitude. McCain remained a prisoner for over five years, enduring beatings and torture until his release in 1973. Within ten years of returning home, he won his first election to Congress as the representative of Arizona’s 1st district.
McCain’s history as a Prisoner-Of-War during Vietnam established him as someone more than willing to put country over self, despite what hardship and sacrifice that decision might require. Admirers of the late Senator saw confirmation of that character when McCain, who prided himself on being a “Maverick,” stood against his own party, rebuffing Republican motions at often critical times. One such time came in 2006, when McCain transgressed political allegiances by refusing to go along with the Bush administration’s use of torture on prisoners in the War on Terror. Another such moment came in July of 2017, when McCain, along with Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, helped kill the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McCain’s vote elicited an audible gasp on the Senate floor.
In spite of these anecdotes, internet critics of McCain point to aspects of his political career that, in their view, either undermine or nullify the facets of his life for which he is celebrated. The two main drivers of such strong criticism are McCain’s complicated history with healthcare legislation and his backing of wars in the Middle East.
As a career Republican, McCain’s voting record on healthcare aligned with the Republican party – meaning that, more often than not, McCain sided against using taxpayer funds to subsidize healthcare for American citizens. Moreover, his valorous last stand against the Republican effort to gut the Affordable Care Act may ultimately prove symbolic. In late 2017, McCain sided with Republicans by voting in favor of scrapping the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act – a move that could leave millions of Americans without insurance.
More antagonizing than his political record on healthcare was McCain’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush called on Congress to approve military action in the Middle East, Senator McCain came out strongly in favor of the war effort. By 2003, the plan had taken effect; since then, the War on Terror has claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East. When the McCain family announced that the Senator had been diagnosed with cancer in July of 2017, the fact of McCain’s involvement in promoting a war with such a high cost of human life prompted one writer to publish an article titled: “Why You Should Celebrate Loudly and Unapologetically When John McCain Dies.” In it, the author described McCain as a “murderous psychopath,” guilty of “warmongering.” McCain, for his part, acknowledged the Iraq War as a mistake – one for which he accepted responsibility.
McCain was, by his own admission, a flawed man, with many mistakes to his name. His admirers recognize that as truth, but continue to praise him for his consistent effort to do the right thing. Even when his actions were wrong, they say, his intentions never were. The online critics revelling in his demise likely do not agree.