John McCain (1936-2018) And Ethics

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.

27 thoughts on “John McCain (1936-2018) And Ethics

  1. I’m going to follow my personal guideline of not pissing on a man’s grave before he’s in the ground and urge others to remain dispassionate until after the funeral. You fellow readers may not be grieving but some people are and we should allow them to do so without provocation.

    • Whatever can be said about the man, I believe he did the best he could with what he had. He had his beliefs, and he followed them. I grieve for his family, and, as unimportant as they may be, I offer my condolences. Via con Dios, John McCain.

      • I think it’s ok to openly discuss the question of his ethics here, in this “boutique” setting, even if some of what we have to say is critical. It isn’t ok to make a public post and “cut loose” as many people already have.

    • This is hardly “pissing on a man’s grave.”

      Neither, by the way, was Trump’s perfunctory tweet. In his ceremonial role as President, Trump should have issued a true non-partisan tribute like Bush’s or Obama’s but he doesn’t have it in him, and we knew that.

  2. Fond memories of Obama starting a childish fight over McCain’s “maverick” nickname and insisting that HE was the REAL maverick. Nothing like a news cycle over who deserves to have a cool nickname.

  3. Jack wrote, ” 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.”, “No doubt about it, Senator McCain had more integrity than most members of Congress, perhaps more than any of them.”, “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.”, 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.”

    These words that I cherry picked out are a wonderful tribute to the underlying character of John McCain. Well done Jack.

    I completely agree.

  4. I already said most of what I had to say about McCain in May, while he was still alive, so I won’t repeat it now, with the exception of mentioning that I think he needs to be docked MANY points for his poor treatment of his first wife. A big part of how a man is rated a hero or not is how he treats his own family, and, although a certain amount of distance or not being there for every scraped knee, school play, and soccer game is forgivable, abandoning your injured wife in affairs and then divorcing her to marry a younger woman who comes from money is shabby enough to disqualify you.

  5. Having been in Arizona almost exactly as long as John McCain, I have to consider him a big time opportunist. Given the opportunity, perhaps I too would have left my wife and kids to marry the twenty years younger heiress of the Budweiser distributorship for Arizona. This Bud’s from you, John.

    I think he earned the term “Maverick” by simply towing the Democratic Party line often enough to be acceptable to the liberal media. He wasn’t a Maverick, he was just playing to his audience in D.C, the national media. They made him their darling after he’d been whomped by Obama, their new darling. Now they’re using him to lambast Trump, this week. They’ll be on to the next thing in a New York minute.

    But I’ll defer to the judgment of his first wife: “He was a good man.” Of his leaving her and their children, she said, “He was forty and wanted to be twenty-five again.” Maybe she should be honored somehow. (She divorced her first Navy fighter jock husband for his infidelity.)

    • Being a maverick just means your party and your president can’t always count on your support when they need it, and that maybe you need a good talking to, not wooing. I might add that, to my knowledge, no Democrat has ever been honored by the mainstream media as a “maverick” for breaking with the party line, whether for objectively good cause or not. That, however, is just because the Democratic party line is the media’s go-to correct line, and breaking with it would be the act of a coward who could be bullied or a traitor who could be bought, not a courageous “maverick.” Courageous mavericks, of course, only break with that evil GOP line.

      In all fairness to McCain, the media chucked the whole “maverick” thing the minute he was running against their messiah, and even dubbed him “John McSame.” That was unfair, and proof positive of bias and manipulation.

      • “Absolut!” as they say in The Netherlands. But essentially, McCain (and his daughter) joined The Resistance, to the media’s uproarious delight.

  6. McCain was not “maverick” enough for me. For real campaign finance reform, I would like to see corporations COMPLETELY EXCLUDED and prohibited from providing any funds, financing, or favors of any value to any candidate at any level.* I won’t be satisfied with campaign finance control until the only money a campaign has available to spend is that which is donated exclusively from the personal assets of living, individual, natural persons. I would be happy to see multi-billionaires limited to the same maximum total cumulative contribution to candidates in any election cycle as the maximum permitted to, say, a single mother who resides in a trailer park. The notion of a tithe – a maximum of ten percent of the average annual income for a person deemed to be living at the “poverty level” – seems a reasonable limit for each person, whether one lives under a bridge or owns mansions and penthouses and yachts (and bridges) around the globe.

    *Yep, First Amendment issues, uh-huh – bring ’em on: NO endorsements should be allowed by any media or business entity – whether private, shareholder-owned, not-for-profit, governmental or non-governmental. Blackouts? YES! You bet. Or else, fines, jail sentences, and forfeiture of assets used for illegal broadcasting and election-tampering. Same for every speaker in every religious assembly. Candidates will have to be healthy enough to meet prospective voters via literal presence in public assemblies – preferably, without the luxuries of microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers, and teleprompters – just the candidate, and the candidate’s own voice.

    People with the nobler qualities of John McCain should not be overwhelmed out of access to power by the likes of the current corrupt swamp of bribery, extortion, and prostitution – and by the creatures that inhabit that swamp. If realizing that “should” requires burial of many of the freedoms currently enabled by the First Amendment, then that burial should – MUST – be done.

  7. I’m wondering how long after McCain has been buried that the real McCain legacy will be trotted out by the left leaning media; I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, his anti-Trump statements. I fully expect to see and hear McCain’s war hero status, the fact that he was a prominent Republican, and his anti-Trump words plastered across the media all the way through the next Presidential election.

    • Those who are paying attention already know of this: I do not expect his words to change many votes. It will only serve to make the loyal resistance feel better about their behavior.

      I have a hang fire smouldering about McCain, waiting until he is in the ground.

  8. If I were President Trump I would wait until John McCain has been buried and make a personal appearance at the grave site to pay my personal respects for the man and his career, I’d privately deliver whatever speech I would have delivered at the ceremony to John McCain’s headstone and leave it at that. No one has to know about my visit but me and my security detail.

    But as we all know I’m not President Trump. Trump is a narcissist and he would need photos and video so it could be “leaked” to the press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.