John McCain: A Patriotic Public Servant, But No ‘Maverick’

As Americans remember McCain for his heroism and decency, an objective analysis shows his "maverick" label is more media hype than reality.

[Photo: U.S. Senator John McCain address the Brigade of Midshipmenat the United States Naval Academy on October 30, 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland.
On a few issues, McCain tried to save the Republican Party from its most extremist wing, but ultimately he was unsuccessful. Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

The headlines of almost every obituary of John McCain have used the phrase “war hero.” This is meant as well-deserved praise for the Arizona senator who died of brain cancer on Saturday at 81. It can also be viewed as a rebuke to Donald Trump, who belittled McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war even though Trump had avoided military service during the Vietnam War.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at a Christian conservative forum in Iowa in July 2015 about McCain, a naval aviator who was shot down during the Vietnam War and held prisoner for more than five years in Hanoi. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump is in the minority. And whatever you think about the Vietnam War, McCain not only served but went beyond the call of duty. The son and grandson of four-star admirals, McCain was personally rambunctious but never politically rebellious. He graduated in 1958 from the Naval Academy, 894th in his class, fifth from the bottom. He later became a fighter pilot and flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam until his plane was shot down by a missile over Hanoi on October 26, 1967. He was held as a POW for five-and-a-half years until his release in March 1973. During that time, the New York Times noted, he suffered “broken arms and a shattered leg, he was subjected to solitary confinement for two years and beaten frequently. Often he was suspended by ropes lashing his arms behind him. He attempted suicide twice. His weight fell to 105 pounds. He rejected early release to keep his honor and to avoid an enemy propaganda coup or risk demoralizing his fellow prisoners.”

He returned to the United States a celebrated hero. Despite enduring grueling physical therapy for his wartime injuries, he remained permanently unable to raise his arms above his head. He continued his military service and in 1977 began serving as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, which triggered his interest in politics. He left the Navy in 1981 as a much-decorated captain and moved to Arizona with his second wife, taking a job with his father-in-law’s beer distributorship. In 1982 he ran for an open seat to represent the safely Republican first Congressional District, winning a campaign funded in large part by his wife.

McCain also has long been described as a “maverick,” a descriptor McCain embraced and which was, along with “war hero,” widely adopted, especially by the media.

Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide and co-author of several of his memoirs, pushed the “maverick” label as McCain prepared for his first run for president in the 1990s. Drawing on McCain’s experiences in the military and as a prisoner of war, Salter helped his boss and friend frame his life’s journey as a man of conscience and public service who put his country above self-interest.

But his reputation as a maverick has more to do with branding and media hype than with major departures from any conservative Republican agenda. Yes, he was willing to buck his party on a handful of issues, including campaign finance reform, the use of torture against political prisoners, immigration reforms, and the regulation of tobacco. And McCain’s now famous thumbs-down vote in 2017 against the repeal of Obamacare has been viewed as further evidence that he was a political maverick.

In truth, McCain was a conservative Republican. From 1987 to 2015, the senator supported the Republican Party-line vote 87 percent of the time, compared with the median senator who voted with his or her party 91 percent of the time. (In contrast, Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, voted with her party only 60 percent of the time).

During his 35 years in Congress, McCain could be counted on for party-line votes on abortion, gun control, defense spending, unions, taxes, same-sex marriage, and most other issues. He voted to repeal Roe v. Wade, for example, as well as to restrict funding for international family planning programs and to bar federal funds to organizations (like Planned Parenthood) that perform abortions. He voted to prohibit lawsuits against gun manufacturers for gun violence, to oppose background checks at gun shows, and to oppose bans on high capacity gun magazines with over ten bullets. According to the AFL-CIO, McCain voted against workers and their unions 84 percent of the time during his public career, including votes against restricting employers from interfering with union organizing drives and to repeal ergonomic rules on repetitive stress in workplaces.

For most of his political career, McCain opposed gay rights and cultivated the endorsement of evangelical voters and anti-gay rights organizations. He opposed same-sex marriage and most equal benefits and protections for LGBTQ couples and employees. While running for president in 2008, he boldly agreed to appear on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, but when she challenged his opposition to marriage equality, he replied, “I just believe in the unique status of marriage between man and woman. And I know that we have a respectful disagreement on that issue.” But like some other conservatives, McCain’s views on the issue changed. He long opposed laws to prevent workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but in 2013 he voted for a bill that included LGBTQ people as deserving protection. When Congress repealed the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010, McCain called it “a very sad day.” Later, however, he became a vocal critic of Trump’s transgender military ban, remarking “When less than 1 percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country.”

In the House and in the Senate (where he replaced his hero, the retired Barry Goldwater, in 1987) McCain represented Arizona’s sunbelt wing of conservatism, tinged with libertarianism, support for gun rights, and opposition to taxes and government regulation. In one of his earliest votes in the House, in 1983, he opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, although he later called that stance a mistake. He was also a war hawk, a product of his military background and upbringing.

McCain tilted even further to the right when, in 2010, he faced his first serious re-election challenge from a Tea Party Republican who accused McCain of not being conservative enough. That year, in its rankings of members of Congress based on their voting records, the National Journal ranked McCain as one of the most conservative senators, tied with Jim DeMint of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

He embraced campaign finance reform only after being embroiled in a scandal that could have destroyed his political career. Between 1982 and 1987 McCain received $112,000 in campaign contributions from Charles Keating, head of Lincoln Savings Bank, and his associates. Keating also offered McCain free trips on his private jets. In 1987, Keating asked McCain and four other senators to stop government bank regulators from seizing Lincoln Savings, which was going bankrupt due to an orgy of speculation and mismanagement. McCain met twice with the regulators on Keating’s behalf. McCain got off easy with a mild rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising “poor judgment,” but the controversy led him to take up the cause of reform. In 2002, after several years of failure, McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, persuaded their colleagues to pass the McCain-Feingold Act that put limits on “soft money” contributions to political parties and on “hard money” donations to national candidates.

Not surprisingly, McCain had strong feelings about the use of torture during the interrogation of detainees, another issue for which he was described as a “maverick.” Although he backed President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq and embraced the Patriot Act and other aspects of the war on terrorism, he drew the line on mistreatment of prisoners. In 2005, the Senate passed his bill to limit inhumane techniques against prisoners, including those at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to practices already allowed by the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation.

During his 2008 campaign for president, despite polls showing that most GOP voters embraced waterboarding, he called it a “horrible torture technique” and a “terrible and odious practice.” He sought to ban the practice, but Bush vetoed McCain’s bill. “This is really fundamentally about what kind of nation the United States of America is,” McCain said. His opposition to what then-vice president Dick Cheney and others called “enhanced interrogation” may be McCain’s most admirable crusade.

In 2013, five years after he lost his presidential contest with Barack Obama, McCain was one of a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight that tried to forge a compromise bill on comprehensive immigration reform, which also added to his maverick reputation. The issue was highly divisive, particularly in Arizona, with both a growing Latino population (and Latino voters) and a powerful nativist movement of white voters and politicians (including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio) who adopted some of the nation’s strongest state-level anti-immigrant laws. McCain intended to run for re-election in 2016, so his embrace of this issue demonstrated courage. Their bill passed the Senate 68 to 32 (with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats), but Speaker John Boehner—facing a revolt from his Tea Party colleagues—refused to allow the House to vote on the legislation and it expired at the end of the session.

McCain purposefully cultivated the “maverick” image. During his 2008 campaign for president against Obama, he called his campaign bus the “Straight Talk Express.” He often went on late-night talk shows, where he was plain spoken, funny, and self-deprecating. Reporters genuinely liked him because he appeared to be a down-to-earth no-bullshit guy with a great sense of humor and an ability to make fun of himself. They admired his courage as a POW even if they disliked the war itself. So they often forgave McCain’s sins, including his role in the Keating scandal, his cheating on his first wife, and his sometimes prickly personality and bad temper.

But apart from his overall conservative record, McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign revealed his best and worst qualities and, in the latter case, may cement his lasting legacy.

At one campaign rally in Minnesota, for example, a supporter claimed he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency. McCain replied, “I have to tell you, Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” That response triggered some gasps and boos from the audience. Some yelled out “Come on, John,” while others, referring to Obama, screamed “liar” and “terrorist.” Moments later, a woman told McCain that she did not trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.” McCain took the microphone from her and replied, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

Some criticized what appears to be McCain contrasting being an “Arab” with being a “decent family man,” but that’s clearly not what he meant. His phrasing may have been inelegant, but it was a demonstration of political courage.

McCain displayed his own decency when, during the campaign, he rejected his advisers’ plan to launch TV ads attacking Obama’s ties to his longtime mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a Black pastor who had made a number of controversial statements about race, religion, and other topics that were available on video and for which the GOP attacked Obama. McCain overruled his advisers, telling them that he did not want to run a campaign based on racism, although Fox News and other surrogates continued to keep the controversy in the public eye.

One of the people who urged McCain to hit Obama on Wright was his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. McCain made the decision to pick Palin as his vice presidential partner against his better judgment, but it remains among his worst moments. Palin served as the campaign’s attack dog, using her platform to whip up racism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-Muslim anger into a movement that would first coalesce into the Tea Party, and later morph into the “alt right,” but which should simply be defined as what it is: white supremacy. After Obama won the election, McCain frequently voiced his disagreement with the president, but it was Palin who used her new-found celebrity to become the public face of the Tea Party and shift the party even further to the right. McCain later said that he regretted his choice of Palin, but he made it based on political expediency, and it has had long-term and devastating consequences for America’s political culture.

Political expediency was also behind McCain’s efforts to tie Obama to the community organizing group ACORN. “We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN,” McCain said in the third presidential debate in October 2008. ACORN, he said, “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” The canard against ACORN for engaging in widespread “voter fraud” was bogus and, given ACORN’s predominantly low-income and Black membership, the comment had its own racist undercurrent. McCain’s remark was not off-hand. It was part of the GOP’s ongoing crusade to perpetrate the myth of “voter fraud” in order to justify passage of voter suppression laws. Eight years later, another GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, would claim that he lost the popular vote because millions of people had voted illegally.

In retrospect, it is clear that McCain’s choice of Palin and his embrace of the “voter fraud” fabrication laid the groundwork for Trumpism.

During the 2016 campaign, however, McCain joined with Mitt Romney to denounce Trump as unfit to be president. He refused to attend the GOP convention in Cleveland. As a party loyalist, he pledged to support the Republican nominee, but then withdrew his support after the media exposed a lewd recording of Trump bragging about how he liked to grope women. McCain was particularly angry at Trump’s attack on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, parents of a Muslim army captain who was killed by a suicide bomber while trying to save other U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Trump disparaged the couple, claiming that the husband had addressed the Democratic convention because his wife wasn’t permitted to speak due to Islam’s views about women. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination,“ McCain said, “it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”

McCain became more of what some might call a “maverick” after Trump was elected. He frequently spoke out against Trump’s rants and rages. McCain was very knowledgeable about foreign affairs. He was flabbergasted by Trump’s ignorance of foreign countries, his saber-rattling, and his love affair with Putin. Trump “seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” he wrote in his most recent memoir. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”

At a meeting with European leaders, McCain criticized Trump’s ultra-nationalist “America First” rhetoric and said that Trump’s administration was “in disarray.” On another occasion, responding to Trump’s claim that the media was “the enemy of the American people,” McCain observed that “the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.” After Trump, appearing infatuated with Putin, sided with the Russian dictator in Helsinki against America’s own intelligence agencies, McCain said, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

It was easier for McCain to blast Trump than for his GOP colleagues because he knew that, given his failing health, he wouldn’t be running for re-election. Still, despite considerable room for political maneuver, McCain voted with Trump and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell 83 percent of the time, including the regressive tax cuts.

In 2010, McCain had voted against the Affordable Care Act. Even his closest colleagues didn’t know whether he would support Trump’s bill to repeal the law when it came to a vote in July 2017. McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor was the first public indication how he felt. It was the decisive vote that killed Trump and McConnell’s last-ditch effort to dismantle Obamacare. It was McCain’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president, and, given earlier votes, may have been more about that than the policy.

McCain requested that former presidents Obama and Bush give eulogies at his memorial service, which will be held at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, but he specifically insisted that Trump be barred from attending the ceremony. That’s understandable, but it is also unfortunate, because Trump’s presence at the service would put the differences between the two men in dramatic relief before the nation and the world.

Unlike Trump, McCain was widely admired and respected, even among those who disagreed with him politically. Unlike Trump, who used his family ties and a phony physical excuse (“bone spurs”) to avoid military service during Vietnam, McCain demonstrated bravery and courage in combat. Unlike Trump, whose character is dominated by racism, selfishness, and an instinct for humiliation, McCain is remembered for his basic decency. Unlike Trump, whose entire life was spent seeking wealth, McCain devoted his life to public service and patriotism.

Still, calling him a “maverick” is more romanticization than reality. On a few issues, McCain tried to save the Republican Party from its most extremist wing, but ultimately he was unsuccessful. Despite his personal decency, he mostly went along with his party’s shift to the extreme right, voting with his Republican colleagues to make America a meaner, more unequal, more bellicose country.