Comment Of The Day: “A Particularly Sad Ethics Dunce: Senator John McCain”

I am bumping Steve-O-in-NJ’s reaction to the depressing drama of Senator John McCain spending his last days in anger and bitterness up in the queue of  pending Comments of the Day, which is long right now. The reason is that his analysis fits neatly into a post I was about to write, but will summarize here as a preface.

The impulse to defend McCain’s recent conduct, notably disinviting President Trump from his funeral in advance, is one more in a long line of signature significance moments, definitively identifying late stage sufferers of anti Trump hysteria. (Trump Derangement Syndrome just isn’t an accurate diagnosis, because it suggests equivalence with the more unhinged critics of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. There is no comparison. It is like comparing a bad cold to the bubonic plague.) The grotesque theater of a public figure choosing, rather than to end his life with grace, forgiveness and unifying good will, choosing to emulate the mad Ahab, screaming,

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee!”

He has gone full-Ahab. You never go full Ahab. But because the equally mad haters of the elected President relish the thought of any insult, attack or indignity hurled Trump’s way, the can’t perceive the obvious. Defending McCain’s prospective snub is as clear a symptom of anti-Trump hysteria as a dog recoiling from water signals rabies.

My usual course is to make an ethics analysis and then check the opinions of analysts who I trust as generally fair and perceptive. Here was Ann Althouse’s take, in part:

It’s very strange — these statements coming from a dying man about what he wants at his funeral. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talking about his own funeral with the assumption the President of the United States wants to attend and then taking a shot at the President saying don’t attend. I mean, how do you get to be the sort of person who, facing death, imagines everyone clamoring to attend your funeral and then telling some of them you don’t want them there? It’s similar to a Bridezilla, thinking everyone’s so interested in attending her wedding and then being dictatorial toward these people.

I don’t understand it…good Lord! What would possess you to think your funeral is going to be such a hot ticket people will be put out if they can’t attend and then letting it be known who you want on the outs?

I’d like to see more dignity and privacy around McCain as he plays his final scene. It’s his brain that is wrecking him. Shouldn’t his family enclose him and protect him?

Those who respect and care about McCain want him to stop. Those who hate Trump so much they are willing to see a war hero and former Presidential candidate embarrass himself to deliver one more divisive insult just regard him as a means to an end.Here is Steve-O-in-NJ’s Comment of the Day on the post, A Particularly Sad Ethics Dunce: Senator John McCain:

Mixed feelings here. John McCain is a son of privilege, any way you slice it. His grandfather was a genuine hero who sacrificed everything, even ultimately his own life (he died four days after the Japanese surrender) for Allied victory in WWII. His dad was a hero almost by happenstance, with a terrible record both at the Academy and in submarine school, but who turned out to be pretty damn good in actual submarine combat when it was needed, and finished a four-star admiral instead of getting pushed out a lieutenant commander on his twentieth anniversary as he probably would have been.

Coming from a lineage like that it’s no wonder he got into the Academy himself, trying to follow in two huge sets of footsteps. Unfortunately, he brought a fair amount of the bad qualities of his dad and granddad as well as the good, didn’t apply himself, and graduated fifth from the bottom of his class, in and out of trouble with higher ranks. He is also damn lucky he wasn’t thrown out of flight school, being a partier and initially a sub-par flier who crashed twice and collided with power lines once. Eventually he did straighten up, and partisan attempts to put the disastrous USS Forrestal fire on him are nonsense.

Yes, he was brutally tortured while in Vietnamese custody, something that no one should have to go through, but let it be noted that he did make a propaganda confession while in that custody- he later acknowledged that every man has his breaking point and he had reached his. He certainly displayed bravery and resilience, a la Louis Zamperini, who was also abused while a POW in WWII, but I wouldn’t put him on the same level as someone like Thomas Hudner or Bruce “Snake” Crandall.

His poor handling of his first marriage is a definite demerit – he freely admits the fault was entirely his that he began to have affairs and then later asked his first wife for a divorce so he could marry a younger woman who came from money. I’m sorry, but, although I have never been married and probably will be single for the duration, the meaning of “in sickness and in health” and so on is very plain. McCain couldn’t keep that most important promise.

He did all right in the Senate, but his designation as a “maverick” isn’t necessarily a good one – it just means that his party and the presidents he served under from that party couldn’t necessarily always count on his support. He had his eye on the White House, possibly because injuries from Vietnam made it impossible for him to achieve flag rank in the military like his father and grandfather, but he just didn’t have the chops or the connections to pull it off. I think he carried lingering bitterness against GWB for defeating his bid in 2000, although he himself took a cheap shot or two during the primaries by accusing Bush of lying and comparing him to Bill Clinton, and was met with overwhelming negative campaigning for it. Note that he was one of only two GOP senators to vote against the Bush tax cuts and also defended Jim Jefford’s defection from the party, which temporarily gave control of the Senate to the Democrats.

All his status as a “maverick” or someone trying to bridge the gap didn’t get him over the hump when his turn finally came in 2008. Indeed, the media labeled him “John McSame” and other titles saying he would be the same as more of GWB. I do think his choice of Sarah Palin was a poor one – she was clearly not ready for prime time, but I think Joe Lieberman would also not have put him over the mark, as that ticket would have pushed conservatives away while not drawing in enough of the center. The question is academic, though, no Republican ticket would have had a chance after the economic crash of late 2008, where the party got the blame, somewhat unfairly.

I think after 2008 he returned to the Senate a shadow of what he once was, of course there wasn’t much he could do until 2015, when he became Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He spoke out against Trump becoming the nominee, but came off as a presumptuous I-know-better scold. He also spoke from a position of having lost already, and was not heeded. It should also be noted that Trump didn’t make the comment he made about McCain not being a hero in a vacuum or as a gratuitous cheap shot. Trump made it after McCain accused him of “firing up the crazies” in a rally in Phoenix. He withdrew his endorsement of Trump in October of 2016, when things were starting to change, and would ultimately see Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and finally Paul Ryan all join the fight on Trump’s side.

Perhaps he thought none of it mattered, because Hillary was a shoe-in anyway. Then Trump won, and instead of facing a former fellow senator who he could at least discuss things with in the White House, he faced someone he personally hated due to an insult thrown back at him for a milder insult he had initiated. In keeping with his earlier petulance and bitterness against GWB, he didn’t swallow his partially justifiable disgust and try to work with a president from his own party as best he could, and, when the chance came, he stabbed him in the back on the Obamacare repeal. He might cloak it in whatever rhetoric, but the bottom line is he did it as a “screw you” to the president, and not because he thought Obamacare, which he didn’t vote for, was a good thing. His bitterness at the president may have contributed to his decision not to step down, even after he knew he was facing the same battle that Ted Kennedy had ultimately lost.

At this point he is probably looking back on his life and not too happy about it. He fell short of the heroism of his dad and granddad, he suffered grievously, he wasn’t really all that well liked by many of his colleagues, and, ultimately, he didn’t achieve the final triumph he would have if his life was written as a novel and which he might think that the slings and arrows he has suffered entitled him to. There isn’t going to be a happy ending to this play, and the curtain is about to come down, perhaps very soon. I think before this country celebrates its 242nd birthday the U.S. Army’s Caisson Platoon (which I was privileged to see up close last month) will be pulling a flag-draped casket to its final resting place, the U.S. Navy’s Honor Guard will fire their volleys as a bugler plays Taps, and the governor of Arizona will be naming a new Senator.

It should be a dignified final scene, however, McCain, bitter that the scales of fate didn’t balance out in his favor, or didn’t balance out in his favor enough, is doing his best to make certain that this final scene is not a dignified one. It is not dignified to publicly regret the choice of a running mate ten years after the fact, and imply that she was the reason you lost. It is not dignified to publicly second-guess and try to place blame for failures on others, and it is not dignified to tell the President of the United States to stay away from your funeral so that you can make it your last big middle finger to him, and make certain that, at least for a week or so, mocking commentary against him that you started continues to echo in the media. Ultimately the crowd will disperse, the gravediggers will close up the grave, the talk will die down, and life will go on. The only thing that will be different is that, whenever your name comes up, as it will less and less as the years pass, you will be remembered for the fact that you gave in to being a jerk at the end of things instead of the legend (not entirely true) that you were a hero who sacrificed much for his country.

30 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “A Particularly Sad Ethics Dunce: Senator John McCain”

  1. Exactly right, Steve-O. Quite disappointed in McCain these last few years; I agree with Althouse, he’s sick and dying, and his family should be protecting him.

  2. That is a great comment, Steve-O. It is sad that the senator believes his legacy will improve y mudslinging at the end of his life. Anger will dissipate quickly. Forgiveness and love are more eternal.

  3. Thanks, all. Jack hit the nail on the head. You never go full Ahab. Anyone who doesn’t end his life with regrets is kidding himself. Anyone who makes those regrets public at others’ expense is destroying his own legacy and good name. Maybe that’s all well and good for him, he’ll be dead, but not so for those he leaves behind, who will have to continue hearing a out it.

    Salon magazine hailed Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her attacks on Trump during the campaign, saying she was doing a heroic thing by cashing in her legacy early to prevent a Trump presidency. What heroic thing, pray tell, is McCain expected to achieve here?

    • You summarize my thoughts on McCain. I have never been a big fan. Perhaps Palin was not the greatest choice as running mate but McCain had absolutely no chance against a flagging economy, two stagnant wars, domestic problems, and a relatively unknown Illinois backseat Senator bolstered by media adulation, effectively granting a coronation for 8 years. Thanks. Great comment.

      While McCain’s descent into madness is depressing and disappointing, watching the media salivate over McCain’s preemptive funeral disinvitation is even more disturbing.


    • McCain was never high on my list of esteemed Republican senators. When he ran in 2008, all I could say was that the election was a fix, and the choice was between Obama and Obama Lite. I am grateful for his military service, inspired by his service while a POW…but thoroughly unimpressed with his work in elected positions. Excellent comment, Steve-O!

      • Thank you. I’d go a step farther, and say 2008 was his year because no one else who was any good wanted it. That said, and even considering the less than stellar campaign he ran, he and Obama were running pretty close until the economic crash sealed his doom.

        • I can’t even remember who McCain’s rivals were in the primaries. Gingrich? Was he one of them? Buchanan? Am pretty sure he was – even won the Iowa primary, maybe. (Maybe I am mixing-up election years.) Republicans have a knack for terrible POTUS campaigns – full of dullness and lack of passion – Reagan and TRUMP being somewhat exceptional. I just don’t think Republicans will ever win the White House again. (There’s Eeyore.)

          • Huckabee, Giuliani, Mitt, and Fred Thompson, plus Ron Paul. McCain was considered a longshot behind Fred, Mitt, and Rudy. But Rudy stayed out of the primaries until too late, and was seen as too liberal—and, as we all know, he’s weird. Mitt was never trusted by conservatives, and Fred, who was my favorite, just didn’t try very hard: he didn’t want it. (Rumor was that his wife made him run.)

            • Fred Thompson would have been a GREAT President. I was impressed with him at the time. Good ethics and morals, policy, and ability to deliver a speech (something I despaired of while Bush the Younger was in office)

              An actor like Reagan, too.

              He never put his shoulder to the wheel, it is true. What a great might have been

              • I liked Thompson’s personal style, too, but I knew right away that he didn’t have fire in his belly. He lacked that consuming ambition to win.

  4. Thanks Steve. Very ambivalent about McCain myself and was long before 2016. Nevertheless, voted for him in 2008 (or at least against the guy who won).

    It’s a pity his most significant legacy will likely be his lesser moments used by his newfound friends in the media in an ever more shrill attempt to undermine the Constitution.

  5. As Ann Althouse says, it’s McCain’s brain that is wrecking him. I had an acquaintance who died of brain cancer. The things that he said towards the end were horribly painful to the people around him. Many of the things seemed completely out of character from his previous life. Others were in character, things that it was easy to imagine he had always thought, but with all the previous restraints of good manners, kindness and affection removed. I worked with the man very closely for many years. He was never a friend. In fact, I always thiought he was a bit of a jackass. Even so, he did have many good qualities, and it would be unfair to judge him by his last few months rather the years of his left that came before. I never cared much for McCain either, but I like to think that two years ago, before his disease, he would have acted differently.

    • I wonder. McCain’s stability and temperament were big issues during the 2008 nomination process and campaign, I always enjoyed his sense of humor, but he also seemed to be like a coiled spring. I’m sure his brain cancer will ultimately be a useful and enduring excuse for this ugly final act; whether that will be the whole truth is something else.

      • He’s always had a vindictive and retaliatory streak to him, but he’s usually known when he’s made his point and when not to burn any bridges because he had more to lose by burning them. Now he has nothing to lose. Isn’t ethics about how you act when you don’t have anything to gain by behaving yourself or lose by behaving badly?

        • I have wondered about the ethics of publicizing McCain’s comments at this time. The man is dying of a brain tumor. It is almost certain that is brain is not functioning properly. The man has had a long and distinguished career of public service. I will bet almost no one agrees with him completely and he is not above criticism, but at this point, it is right to publicize the comments of a man who may not be in full control or in his right mind? Is it right to tarnish his legacy by promoting his statements, that quite possibly could become more and more outrageous? It is the same way I feel about the left using Gabrielle Giffords as a spokesperson and ‘idea woman’ for gun control.

  6. Again, never a fan of the Senator, but I always gave him the benefit of the doubt. I’m certainly not a professional mental health expert, but I’ve always felt that the mental stresses of those 5 years in brutal captivity took much more toll on his character and many of his traits afterwards. Short tempered, volatile temper, impatience, etc. are all of the things that I found in my late Father-in-law, a combat veteran of 3 wars, although not a POW. I think I understood McCain’s shortfalls in this context but also felt that he should have also recognized them and brought them under control, rather than using them to define his Political career. Perhaps he never got the right professional help afterwards.

  7. Let me flesh out some of the comments concerning McCain’s prisoner of war experience. I had the fortune/misfortune of going through POW training the year after these men were repatriated from North Vietnam. A number of them presided over our training program, acting as advisors. We were also briefed extensively by these gentlemen concerning their experience in North Vietnam. To a man, they viewed McCain as a hero. It should be noted that virtually every one of these people detained in Hanoi in the early part of the war was “broken” and signed some type of forced confession. None of them viewed signing such a document, after literally days of excruciating and disfiguring treatment, as an indication of a lack of courage. And for some reason Steve neglects to mention the most outstanding aspect of McCain’s detention-he refused repatriation from those horrific conditions because to do so would have been an act of supreme disloyalty to the men he would leave in captivity. Notwithstanding his later conduct, and I agree with Steve on most of the remaining analysis, for me and many others McCain will hold a special place as an example of ethical and moral conduct under the most desperate conditions.

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