I've been thinking a lot about John McCain the past few weeks, and especially today. My political beliefs are progressive and I rarely support conservative politicians, but I took an interest in John McCain during the 2000 Republican primary. Living in California then, he ran a close primary contest against the eventual winner, George W. Bush, that captivated my attention and prompted me to contribute to his campaign. I haven't supported a Republican politician since then and haven't thought much about that primary until I re-read David Foster Wallace's profile of the campaign from Rolling Stone Magazine. If you never read it, go ahead and do so now - I'll wait.
It does a wonderful job of capturing what made John McCain unique, what made his politics unique, and what made it possible for a progressive like me to get excited about his candidacy. One of my favorite sections:
And when Senator John McCain also says – constantly, thumping it at the start and end of every speech and THM – that his goal as president will be “to inspire young Americans to devote them- selves to causes greater than their own self-interest,” it’s hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real “cause,” to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble – sounding bullshit and convince even themselves that they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it’s how most of us feel. And it’s beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level where we also block out billboards and Muzak. But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the–charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.
He goes on to describe McCain's imprisonment and torture which most of us have read about and says:
Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused, The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react. But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth.
I watched most of John McCain's funeral today. It was a tour de force of American politics, but also a symbolic statement for how McCain viewed the current political climate in that Donald Trump was not invited and McCain asked a mix of Democrats and Republicans to speak for him. In watching it, I couldn't help but hope its message of bipartisan collaboration for the betterment of our country would reach current members of congress. The funeral is available to watch here and my favorite speeches are Meghan McCain at 1:40 and Barack Obama at 2:52.