CPAC 2019: What Republicans’ Treatment of John McCain Teaches Us About the Nature of Legacies

John McCain in 1973 (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog)

or as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a soft spot for politicians who are willing to risk their careers and reputations for the sake of their principles. Few politicians have as much experience with that as the late Republican Senator John McCain. McCain’s life would’ve been much more comfortable had he chosen the path of the cowardly partisan doormat, but he wasn’t designed for such an ordinary profession. He frequently stood up for what he believed in his heart was right and true even when it invited passionate criticism and blowback from members of his own party.

Past attacks on McCain by his fellow Republicans were often meant to obscure certain truths that many GOP leaders and activists declined to acknowledge. When he voted to preserve Obamacare, for instance, he faced accusations of betrayal from nearly every corner of his party. In reality, Obamacare has thus far survived Donald Trump’s presidency not because of moderates like McCain, but because the Republican Party was too lazy and shortsighted to design a feasible alternative of its own. The Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March of 2010. The GOP had more than six years to come up with a replacement plan before Trump took office, yet they never found the time to get it done. Had they done so, perhaps McCain wouldn’t have had to rescue a healthcare law that he himself voted against when it was first proposed in Congress. But he knew that Americans couldn’t afford a return to the old days when insurance companies could use the “pre-existing condition” excuse to deny coverage to desperately ill patients.

McCain’s willingness to be a thorn in the side of his own party when he felt it was necessary did occasionally garner a bit of goodwill with his liberal and progressive critics, though that was obviously not a priority for him. His rebelliousness typically came from a principled place, not a political one. He was savvy enough to know that his hawkish views on foreign policy precluded any sort of lasting friendship with the left, and that the dissension he occasionally sowed in the upper ranks of the GOP eliminated any chance he might have to forge lasting alliances with many of his staunchly partisan colleagues. He spent a good deal of his career on an island with a handful of his peers — some who joined him for principled reasons, others who joined him because it was convenient at the time — and he was happy to endure that challenge when he saw no other option.

That’s why I respected him even when I was furious with him. And I have to say, there weren’t many United States Senators who could infuriate me like John McCain. But my rage never diminished my admiration for the man. No matter how incensed I may have been with him at any given time, my anger always gave way to wonderment in those moments when he became unmovable, resolved as he was to pursue what he saw as the most righteous choice available to him regardless of how it might impact his political future.

I was not the least bit surprised when his spirit was yanked back into the crosshairs at this year’s CPAC convention. McCain had a habit of frustrating his conservative base on immigration; by today’s standards, he was as much of a moderate on that issue as the amnesty-supporting Ronald Reagan had been. But unlike Reagan, McCain has never been forgiven for veering too close to the center of the aisle, hence right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin’s attack on the “ghost of John McCain” at CPAC this past weekend, an attack that elicited a standing ovation from a large portion of the audience.

On Twitter, Cindy McCain issued a very brief and calm response to the comment made about her deceased husband. Following her mother’s lead, Meghan McCain expressed disgust with the disrespect shown towards her father’s memory, referring to the incident as a ghoulish form of propaganda.

The entire affair — both Malkin’s comment and the responses to it — has been something of a Rorschach test for everyone involved. Some on the right have consistently argued that McCain’s record on everything from immigration to the torture of radical Muslim terrorists represents a betrayal of the conservative principles he was supposed to fight for. To those individuals, Malkin’s critique was nowhere close to being out of bounds. Conversely, many on the left have characterized the episode as emblematic of the MAGA movement’s extremism and xenophobia. On social media, others have highlighted the alleged hypocrisy of Republicans who continue to speak ill of McCain while simultaneously professing their undying appreciation for America’s war heroes.

In my eyes, though, the one truly important lesson to be learned from the everlasting assault on John McCain’s legacy by certain members of his own party — and for many people, this lesson is really just a reminder of something they already knew to be true — is that legacies themselves are utterly meaningless and useless things that we should all quit worrying about.

John McCain may have been a maverick, but he was still a Republican who espoused Republican values and championed Republican causes. On gun control, he was conservative. On foreign policy, he was conservative. He was a strong supporter of charter schools and a proponent of free trade. A brief look at his voting record in its totality reveals that he voted with Republicans the vast majority of the time.

Was he a moderate Republican? He was indeed, at least in the context of modern American politics. Then again, so was the aforementioned Ronald Reagan, who signed off on an amnesty bill for unauthorized immigrants in 1986, raised taxes multiple times to compensate for a lack of revenue, and, before becoming President, spoke out against a California ballot initiative to prohibit public schools from employing gay men and women. But Reagan isn’t remembered as a moderate, and he likely never will be. His legacy is that of a staunch conservative warrior who ended the Cold War, stood up for traditional values at every turn, and breathed new life into the American economy.

Ronald Reagan and John McCain: two moderate Republicans, two very different legacies. Like so many other politicians, they’ll be remembered not as the men they really were, but as the heroes their supporters needed them to be and the scoundrels their critics wanted them to be. And that’s the problem with legacies; they’re fleshy, pliable casseroles of achievements, failures, contradictions and consistencies that you can very easily mold into just about anything your audience demands, be it a villainous caricature, inspirational icon, or something in between. That’s why many legacies don’t accurately reflect the motivations and beliefs of the people from whom they originated, or provide a complete picture of the lives those people led. By the time they’re deposited into the annals of human history, most of our own leaders’ legacies will have been mangled beyond recognition by agenda-driven critics and activists, and not even the precision of internet archivists will be enough to stop it from happening. For better or worse, this is just how history works.

The older I get, the more I notice how we’re so frequently compelled to act in ways that will elevate other people’s perceptions of ourselves. That obsession with perceptions — with creating, preserving and fine-tuning the legacies that will one day be used as barometers to measure the quality of the lives we have lived — is perfectly understandable. We’re social creatures. We’re wired to care deeply about how other people see us even after we’re gone. But when you consider the fickle nature of human beings in general and the ways in which they’re prepared to distort the truth to try and make reality conform to their own biases and perspectives, it becomes apparent that we are not the masters of our own legacies. I believe John McCain figured that out at a much younger age than I did, and that he was consequently able to free himself of any worries or concerns that might have otherwise discouraged him from taking on his own party when his principles demanded it. I also believe that were he alive today, he would shrug off the postmortem assaults on his service to his country, unfazed by that which he understood to be well beyond his control.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store