Senator John McCain died last night, just a day after the announcement that he had suspended treatment for the brain cancer diagnosed last summer. His passing is an event that must be noted on an ethics blog, even though the Senator was nearly as prominent in his ethical missteps as he was in his moments of principle and heroism.
I think the fairest way to assess the career of John McCain is that he tried to do the right thing, and like most essentially good human beings, was sometimes misled and confused by emotion, bias, self-interest and careless ethical analysis. Senator McCain was an adherent of the common belief that if you know you are essentially good, your gut will guide you through ethical challenges. That belief is erroneous, unfortunately—ethics is harder than that—and sometimes steered McCain tragically wrong. Nonetheless, I have little doubt that if all elected officials had the approach to ethics that John McCain did and possessed the values that guided him, our politics would be cleaner and more trustworthy, and our nation and our culture would be better. Not perfect, for McCain was not perfect. But definitely better.
The reason this is true is that McCain refused to be locked into ideologies and partisan cant. When he thought his party or its leadership was wrong, he was unusually willing to say so, and to act on his words. This garnered him the over-used label of “maverick,” which trivialized a personal ethical code: Don’t do what everyone else—your friends, allies and followers–is telling you to do just because it’s the easier choice. If there was ever someone who rejected the #1 Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” and all of its variations, it was John McCain. That alone made him more ethical than the vast majority of his fellow citizens, and especially his fellow politicians.
I wish I could designate McCain an Ethics Hero Emeritus, but I can’t. He was certainly a hero in wartime, as a prisoner of war who endured great suffering without succumbing to the temptation to ease his own pain by inflicting more on his comrades in arms. His ethical compass failed, however, in many high-profile situations and events.
He blundered into the Keating Five scandal. He convinced himself that betraying the principles of the First Amendment was necessary to limit corruption in political campaigns, an embrace of “the ends justify the means” that despite being foiled by the U.S. Supreme Court, has undermined public support and understanding of the Bill of Rights. Seeking the GOP Presidential nomination in 2000, McCain refused to condemn South Carolina’s official use of the Confederate flag during the state’s crucial primary, then, after he lost, pandered to the left and moderates by announcing that he had been wrong—a sickening example of flip-flopping for a public figure whose trademark was integrity. (The episode marked the end of my illusions about John McCain.) He behaved similarly when his re-election campaigns in Arizona looked daunting, rejecting his own compromise proposals on illegal immigration and taking the same hard-line that his conservative opponents had taken against him. This was pure political expediency, hardly unusual in a politician, but disqualifying for membership in the Ethics Alarms Hall of Heroes.
No doubt about it, Senator McCain had more integrity than most members of Congress, perhaps more than any of them. That statement, however, says more about them, the institution and the nature of politics than it does about McCain, unfortunately.
How many ethics hero points should we dock McCain for the last years of his life and career? Though it is tempting to give him a break because he was aging and in obvious decline, it was McCain who refused to give up power when doing so was the responsible course. (This is the rule rather than the exception in the Senate, it should be noted.) Worst of all was his selfish decision to stay in the Senate when he was too ill to do the job he was elected to do. It was doubly irresponsible and indulgent because much of his final year was spent engaging in a personal vendetta against President Trump. Some of McCain’s words and actions breached his own principles regarding what elected officials should and should not do and say to undermine an elected chief executive. He even went so far as to signal that the President would not be welcome at his funeral, making himself appear petty and angry, which, in this case, he was. In the same mood, McCain used his autobiography to settle scores, and in an especially graceless move, second-guessed his selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008. The book had the feel of a hit-and-run exercise, which it was. McCain confided in friends that his impending demise had relieved him of fearing the consequences of speaking his mind. That may have been true, but it is hardly an ennobling attitude.
In the end, John McCain must be judged an essentially good man who believed that doing the right thing was his duty, and one who often showed courage by trying to do it. He was not a great intellect, and that is an impediment to ethical decision-making, just as “going by your gut” is a perilous habit in ethics, even if, as in McCain’s case, one has been inculcated in the right values. McCain had an excellent sense of humor, which served him well in keeping life in perspective, and over-all, the Senate, the government and our national scene is diminished by his loss.
I have been largely disappointed in the obituaries and tributes I have seen so far. The New York Times obituary even uses McCain’s obit as an opportunity to engage in Trump-bashing, which I find incredible. What is a paragraph like this, for example, doing in John McCain’s obituary?
Seemingly impervious to criticism of any kind, Mr. Trump, who had easily won nomination, turned his guns on Mrs. Clinton. After a bruising campaign laden with Trump falsehoods and scurrilous innuendo, he defeated her in the general election, losing the popular vote by nearly three million but winning in the Electoral College.
Lifezette has a fair and focused tribute here.