A true hero for our time

Published by The i paper (27th August, 2018)

When John McCain’s family issued a statement on Friday saying the veteran Arizona senator had decided to discontinue treatment for brain cancer, the implication was clear: one of the most admired figures in the United States was close to death. Yet Kelli Ward, a hard-right Republican firebrand locked in a three-way fight to represent his party and state in the Senate, insisted the news was designed to hurt her campaign. ‘I think they wanted to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me,’ she wrote on Facebook.

Hopefully this repellent character, incredibly a former doctor, losses her electoral struggle and slithers back into obscurity. Even Donald Trump, McCain’s arch enemy and antithesis of pretty much everything in the war hero’s extraordinary life, posted a sympathetic tweet – although true to form, his brief display of dignity largely dissipated when McCain’s death was announced the following day. Yet that single line on social media from a shameless huckster illustrates with hideous precision the pitiful nature of modern politics – and not just in the United States.

A fine man who saw the worst of humanity McCain’s death offers opportunity to reflect not just on a fine man who saw the worst of humanity yet never lost his hope in the future nor his faith in people’s ability to do good. It serves also as reminder of the depth of the plight confronting Western politics. He departs the stage at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of confidence, when his nation has abandoned global leadership, when his beloved West is tormented by nationalism, when politics is polluted by snake-oil populists, when public debate is tarnished by tribalism, when human rights are under sustained attack and when refugees fleeing the sort of torture he suffered get scapegoated by shysters seeking only to advance careers.

For McCain’s bravery and decency was displayed not only in defiance amid the hell of Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi. It is, of course, inspiring to read again how this privileged young man, the son and grandson of four-star admirals, stood up with astonishing courage to his captors in Vietnam. I am always amazed when I interview torture victims how they can withstand such intense cruelty and pain – and indeed, how anyone could inflict such things on a fellow human being. Yet McCain, renowned as a goofball during his naval training days, repeatedly rejected early release as his body was beaten, his bones broken and his mind battered almost to point of suicide in more than two years of solitary confinement.

He came home an all-American hero amid shattering national defeat. Those five and a half years sealed his place in history but also moulded his politics. McCain remained true to his values rather than constantly bending with the wind like so many lesser figures in places such as Washington and Westminster. This was seen in his constant defence of freedom, his contempt for despots, his support for dissidents, his despair over US use of torture under George Bush. This was seen in his readiness to reach across party lines on foreign policy or to push causes such as campaign finance and immigration reform. And this was seen to the end with that dramatic appearance in the Senate last year, his face scarred from cancer surgery, to extinguish Trump’s effort to repeal his predecessor’s health reform.

Having shown such toughness under torture, he was strong enough to accept fallibility and admit failure. He inflicted Sarah Palin on the nation as his running mate during one of his two doomed presidential bids, after all, while backing the Iraq war and fetishising defence spending. And he was not afraid to expose his emotions. His close aide Mark Salter told The New Yorker a tale about McCain once attending a naturalisation ceremony in Iraq for soldiers becoming US citizens. ‘There were two pairs of boots on two chairs. Two guys who were about to become citizens but they were killed that week. And he’s told me that story a hundred times and he cries every time he tells that story.’

In an age when we crave authenticity from politicians, McCain was the real deal. He did not need to brag about his greatness nor throw around classical quips. Perhaps this was why he was so comfortable with journalists rather than ranting about fake news. Above all, he retained his sense of humour, his humanity and his morality – as seen so famously with that moment when standing for president against Barack Obama, he takes the microphone from a woman complaining his rival is an Arab. ‘No ma’am,’ he said. ‘He’s a decent family man and citizen whom I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.’ What a noble rejoinder also to all those contemporary politicians that so readily inflame division.

It is sad McCain was seen as a maverick since many of his attributes should be norms of democratic politics. When attacked for softening on policy, he said he was ‘a champion of compromise’ since he lived in a land ‘of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls.’  No wonder in our current climate it is easy to get hagiographic about McCain. And obvious to point out the contrast with a draft dodging reality television star who – unlike him – won the White House, even dismissing his war heroism since he was captured. Yet the lessons from McCain’s life go far beyond Trump in these times when democracy is under siege from despotism, fear, technology, tribalism, ugly nationalism and open hatred of other human beings. His bravery and morality will be sorely missed in these foul times.

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