The irony of McCain’s curtain-closing contretemps with the president is that it is clearly Trump himself who has inherited McCain’s mantle as the leading Republican maverick in Washington. Both men have often taken on the party orthodoxy across an array of big issues, with Trump running as the ultimate populist outsider in 2016 and spouting apostasies on trade, immigration and foreign policy; and McCain doing so on just about everything at one point or another during his long career. Both are known for being irascible and often bad-tempered, and unsparing toward enemies and rivals, even in their own party. Indeed, during McCain’s first run for president in 2000 he managed to enlist only a handful of his 53 Senate Republican colleagues to support him over George W. Bush, and some cited his volcanic anger and congenital impatience (traits that McCain insists he has since reined in) as a reason. As one GOP senator told me back then, “I didn’t want this guy anywhere near a trigger.” The two politicians even share some views on the proper use of American force in the world and the perils of palliative diplomacy — McCain opposed the Iran nuclear deal as fiercely as Trump, for one.
The similarities, however, probably end there. McCain is widely admired on both sides of the aisle for his guts, integrity, humor and style, and — whether they thought him right or wrong — no one has ever questioned that he acted out of anything but patriotism and passion. Certainly it was never entertained — as it is almost daily in Washington about Trump — that McCain was mainly motivated by self-aggrandizement. Trump regularly fulminates against anyone he considers disloyal to him personally (one reason he is said to hate McCain); McCain has reserved his ire mainly for those he considers disloyal to his country’s interests. And while McCain can be scatologically harsh about his political rivals behind closed doors — sometimes to their faces — he has often been eloquently magnanimous in public, for example praising the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy as “probably the greatest antagonist I ever had on the floor of the Senate” and someone who “dedicated his life to the institution.” McCain became, throughout his career, the embodiment of the noble nonconformist on the Hill, the politician who was all too willing to sacrifice party loyalty to do what he thought was right for the country, to do so loudly and consistently, and to fearlessly pronounce everyone, including the occupant of the Oval Office, dead wrong if they disagreed with him.
McCain is mavericky even in the mavericks he holds up as his heroes
It’s become a cliché to label McCain a “maverick” for his dramatic, and increasingly frequent, breaks with the Republican Party line. But it’s a cliché because the label fits: Over nearly four decades in Washington, McCain has given a master class in maverickism, and it is for this he will be most remembered. So it is fitting, perhaps that the inveterate fighter is taking on Trump — another Republican politician who rose by bucking GOP orthodoxy — in his final battle, and bequeathing to the nation a bookful of advice on how to be the right kind of maverick. To Trump, McCain writes in his new memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations, the mere appearance of toughness “seems to matter more than any of our values.” He suggests the president is jeopardizing those values by undermining the free press with regular accusations of “fake news” — a tactic “copied by autocrats,” McCain writes — supporting torture, branding immigrants criminals and opening the door to moral equivalence with Vladimir Putin by saying, “We have a lot of killers too.” That, McCain writes, “was a shameful thing to say, and so unaware of reality.”
Finally McCain makes an appeal to a country that now sometimes seems fatally paralyzed by mistrustful and bitter partisanship, saying that the frequent willingness to cross party lines that he displayed in the Senate is essential if American democracy is to function. “I’m a champion of compromise in the governance of a country of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls,” he writes. “There is no other way to govern an open society, or more precisely, to govern it effectively.”
The highlight reel of McCain’s discord with U.S. presidents is long, especially in foreign policy. Even as a first-term congressman in 1983, McCain defied a president he said he admired, Ronald Reagan, over the question of deploying U.S. Marines to Beirut. The mission, McCain said, simply wasn’t clear enough. McCain’s top aide and the co-writer of his memoirs, Mark Salter, later explained his thinking to me: “What in the world are a few hundred Marines doing [there] but making themselves targets?” (Tragically, months later 241 U.S. personnel died helplessly as just that: targets in a barracks.) For similar reasons, McCain took on another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, saying he was leery of committing U.S. troops to a ground war in the desert after Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into Kuwait in the summer of 1990 (though he ultimately voted in favor of the war). He also resisted what he saw as muddled interventions in Somalia and, initially, Bosnia — at least until the massacre of thousands of Muslim men — and voted against intervention in Haiti, though he later harangued President Bill Clinton for not being active enough in halting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
But as the “smart bomb” era dawned in the first Gulf War — reaffirming America’s military might and exorcising some of the ghosts of Vietnam — McCain reoriented his independent thinking toward a new, bold hawkishness in foreign policy, and he began to come at his fellow Republicans as a maverick from the right. In 1991, the sight of Saddam Hussein’s supposedly formidable army being routed and American soldiers returning home as heroes was liberating for McCain, staffers said. It suggested to him that the country had finally gotten over its Vietnam hangover.
This was personal: McCain’s five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton had been formative, laying the emotional and intellectual groundwork for his ferocious independence in foreign policy. Friends say that for McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, Vietnam became the great cautionary example against squandering American blood and treasure, and it turned him into an early advocate of what would later be called the Powell doctrine, named after fellow vet and later Secretary of State Colin Powell: The nation should not commit U.S. troops unless the mission and exit strategy are clear and overwhelming force is applied. America must then give the military its full and unstinting support.
“Vietnam [taught] us that war is a terrible thing and you don’t go in unless you’re prepared to win and get it over with,” McCain’s younger brother, Joe, told me in 2008, explaining John’s thinking. The McCain family history was also crucial to molding the senator’s hawkish views, especially the fact that his father, Admiral John McCain Jr., commanded Pacific naval forces at the height of the Vietnam war. “He had the most powerful [military] force in the history of the world, and he was unable to use that force,” Joe McCain said. After he was released, McCain studied for a year at the National War College, where he devoured files in hopes of finding out what had gone so wrong with the war. He came to believe that the Vietnam War could have been won had Congress not cut off funding in the closing years of the conflict.
All this led directly to McCain’s ardent — and very lonely — attempt to awaken George W. Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the growing Iraqi insurgency in the months after the 2003 invasion. McCain became, in fact, the first supporter of a “surge,” years before Bush and other Republicans did. “I came out of the Vietnam War convinced that frankly we could have won, and we had it won,” he told me in 2014. “Just as I believed we had the Iraq conflict won after the surge — and for which I sacrificed everything, including my presidential ambitions, that it would succeed.” As recently as 2014 McCain stood almost alone in a war-weary Senate in calling for American airstrikes against ISIS.
As consistent as his hawkishness, however, has been his opposition to torture in war. McCain became the leader on the Hill in fighting the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding — the reason for his opposition to the nomination of Haspel, a CIA careerist who is said to have been involved with such policies under Bush.
True, McCain voted with Republicans for most of his career — he describes himself as a lifelong “Reagan Republican,” and according to FiveThirtyEight, his lifetime rating is about average for a Republican — but at crucial moments on major issues he moved to the middle, or crossed the aisle altogether, and not just in foreign policy. In 2002, McCain teamed up with liberal Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, seeking and ultimately failing to curtail “soft money,” and later blasted the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision overturning it. In 2001, he voted with Dems against the Bush tax cuts and in 2005 worked with Ted Kennedy on a failed immigration bill granting illegal immigrants some amnesty. Ten years earlier, he had joined with John Kerry on normalizing relations with Vietnam.
Stances like these hurt McCain’s reputation among Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign. The GOP base, all too aware of his many heresies, was decidedly unenthusiastic about his candidacy. Rush Limbaugh, the popular right-wing radio host, had been railing against McCain for years over his efforts to work with Democrats like Feingold and Kennedy and then declared that if he were nominated, “it’s going to destroy the Republican Party.” “He’s just a lousy senator and a terrible Republican,” said Hugh Hewitt, another syndicated talk-show host. “His votes the past seven to 10 years have been on the wrong side of the issues.” McCain, ultra-conservative author (and later Trump supporter) Ann Coulter said back then, was a traitor to conservatives, so much so that she’d campaign for Hillary Clinton if he were nominated. When asked if there was anything the Arizona senator could do to change her mind, Coulter told Newsweek: “McCain could invent a time machine, travel back in time” and take back all his liberal-leaning votes in Congress.
During that campaign, McCain was also accused of political expediency for foisting an obviously unready Sarah Palin on the electorate to appease his base, for changing his positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration and campaign-finance reform, and for going so negative in the late stages against Barack Obama that Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement and someone whom McCain admires, accused the GOP candidate of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in ways reminiscent of George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor. Yet perhaps the most memorable moment from that campaign came when McCain, at a rally, gently took the microphone from a woman who called Obama “an Arab” and said to boos from his own supporters, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.” It was, to say the least, a most un-Trumplike moment.
For McCain, the Haspel nomination was in the end yet another hopeless battle
McCain is mavericky even in the mavericks he holds up as his heroes. Early in his career he sought to emulate Democratic Senator Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, one of the leading lights of the early neoconservative movement, whom McCain described when he was running for president in 2008 as “the model of what an American statesman should be.” Jackson bucked his own party on the biggest issue of the day — how to confront the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s he opposed a Democratic president over détente and SALT II, and he refused to accept the view that Moscow could safely be contained. McCain’s other great hero is the early 20th-century individualist Teddy Roosevelt, who is “probably his most important historical role model,” McCain’s brother Joe told me in 2008. McCain admires TR’s sheer grit — Roosevelt once delivered a speech after being shot — and he deeply admires Roosevelt’s belief, according to the senator’s brother, that “the U.S. was the greatest force for good in the world.” McCain admired, too, that TR acted on that belief by re-arming, which was quite a mavericky stand in that proto-isolationist period.
McCain, by his own reckoning, is a deeply flawed figure (another self-assessment of the sort one does not hear from Trump). In his new memoir, he concedes that the war in Iraq he fought so hard to launch and then escalate now “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.” And in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For, the man who was nicknamed “John Wayne” McCain at Annapolis for his antic and feisty behavior admitted that his “legendary” temper, and the fierce righteousness joined to it, “has caused me to make most of the more serious mistakes of my career.” During his first Senate run, in 1986, McCain grew so tired of hearing complaints about his anger that he shouted to his staffers (“as they struggled to keep straight faces,” recorded author Robert Timberg), “I don’t have a temper! I just care passionately.”
At various times he has been mocked for overreaching: for imitating a Beach Boys song and suggesting America needed to “bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran — a joke gone bad that almost could have come from the mouth of Trump — and for displaying visceral anger at anyone who didn’t agree with him that radical Islamism (as opposed to, say, global warming) was the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century.” (“Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House,” McCain said in 2008.) He has also annoyed Senate colleagues for being immovable on certain issues: For example, he refused for a long time to consider any diplomacy with the Iranian government, and long before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into Ukraine, McCain was outspoken about his animosity toward the Russian leader (though one could also say he was prescient on that score).
But whatever his faults, no one ever suggested McCain hasn’t made a brilliant career out of being his own man, even while he has remained a consummate statesman of the Senate. That’s never been more true than it is now, as he fights his final battle with America’s current president. In one of his last votes on the Hill, he was a key voice in rejecting the latest iteration of Obamacare repeal, killing one of the president’s key campaign pledges. Last week, he urged his fellow senators to reject Haspel’s nomination for CIA director: “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” he wrote.
For McCain, the Haspel nomination was in the end yet another hopeless battle — she was confirmed as CIA director Thursday afternoon — yet he seems happy to merely leave behind the example of his last maverick stand against his party and its president. In his 2002 memoir, McCain invoked Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure” as his ideal and described how the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, became for him “the man I admired above almost all others in life and fiction. He was brave, dedicated, capable, selfless.” Sixteen years later, in The Restless Wave, McCain quotes Hemingway’s final words in the book as Jordan lies wounded and doomed. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan says to himself, “and I hate very much to leave it.” Writes McCain now: “And I do too. I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”
That “small place” will include a lot of enduring lessons in how to stand up for what one believes and yet still be willing to compromise to get things done — how to be the right sort of nonconformist, as opposed to what many in Washington now consider the wrong sort. In 2015, Trump provoked McCain’s — and much of the country’s — outrage when the then-GOP candidate, who avoided service in Vietnam allegedly because of bone spurs, made fun of McCain’s brutal imprisonment in Vietnam, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” In recent weeks, as McCain lay incapacitated by inoperable brain cancer, the administration piled on when a White House staffer was quoted as saying that McCain’s opposition to Haspel didn’t matter, since “he’s dying anyway,” and the Trumpites refused to apologize.
It’s the difference, perhaps, between two very different kinds of mavericks.
Michael Hirsh is the former foreign editor and chief diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek, and the former national editor for POLITICO Magazine