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.