There are two John McCains. The first is the well-curated PR image of a straight-talking, principled maverick war hero who skirts partisanship in favor of doing what’s right. The second John McCain, the three-dimensional one who occupies reality, is a reliable partisan conservative who loves war and occasionally says things mildly critical of his own party. Over the last week, in the interest of politeness and nationalist myth-making, our media has overwhelmingly focused on the former at the expense of fidelity to history.
It’s easy to understand why pundits would go easy on or even praise McCain, a longtime senator from Arizona who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and who suffered as a prisoner of war for five years. But accuracy matters more than etiquette.
As many others have noted throughout the years, McCain’s political career has been marked by jarring flip-flops and malleable principles. He was opposed to President George W. Bush’s NSA wiretap program before he supported it. He defended the estate tax before he harshly criticized it. He vaguely opposed torture but undermined legislative efforts to stop it. He embraced Social Security privatization before saying otherwise — twice. Positions evolve, that’s fine; but most politicians don’t build their entire brand on principle only to shift stances in a seemingly arbitrary fashion.
Another problem with the latest wave of McCain hagiographies is that they’re proof of low standards in the age of Trump. In the wake of his cancer diagnosis, McCain received praise from pundits for a moment in 2008 when he corrected a racist voter who called Obama “an Arab.” “No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man.” But the fact that McCain casually contrasted being Arab with being “decent” — without defending Arabs as such — goes largely ignored. The media grades Republicans on such a steep curve these days that the most basic instance of common decency is taken as evidence of profound moral courage.
Take, for another example, McCain’s “heroic” return to the Senate floor on Tuesday to defend Senate traditions, which he said had been cast aside by his colleagues in their hurry to repeal Obamacare. Outlets from CNN to Washington Post to ABC framed this return as a swan song appeal to patriotism, a defense of decency by a “lion of the Senate.” Buried in these reports, however, is that while McCain condemned the partisan, cynical nature of the bill being rammed through Congress, he proceeded to vote for every measure that advanced it, anyway. (He did vote “no” on a partial repeal bill that would not have replaced Obamacare.)
“In voting for (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s motion, McCain participated in precisely the sort of cynical partisan political maneuver that he inveighed against,” the New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote. Once again: There’s John McCain the PR vassal and John McCain the loyal Republican apparatchik; and once again the media focused on the former while downplaying the latter.
One of the most pervasive myths is that McCain, as The Washington Post editorial board recently said, “champions human rights.” It’s a popular trope that consistently gets bandied about uncritically — even by McCain himself in a self-promoting op-ed in The New York Times in May. There’s only one problem with this conventional wisdom: It’s bogus.
While McCain does occasionally condemn human rights abuses, he generally does so when seeking to demonize those already in the crosshairs of American aggression — Russia or Venezuela, say. And he’s never met a war he didn’t like, which is a rather unusual trait for a supposed champion of human rights.
McCain passionately advocated for an Iraq invasion that caused 500,000 to 1 million deaths and a Libya bombing that turned the country into a haven for extremists and slave markets. He cheerled the 2014 Israel bombing of Gaza while hundreds of Palestinian civilians were being killed. And perhaps most shamelessly he continues — to this day — to support Saudi Arabia’s devastating and cruel siege of Yemen that’s claimed over 10,000 civilian lives and led to nearly 600,000 cases of cholera. McCain selectively cares about “human rights” when it permits him to lay the groundwork for U.S. aggression, but looks the other way when the U.S. or its allies are at fault.
No one wants to dunk on an octogenarian just diagnosed with cancer, but history is being written as we speak and it’s essential that history not get obscured by the rose-tinted goggles of a bipartisan fetishizing U.S. media. Those subject to McCain-backed policies domestically — including the millions who would be affected by Obamacare repeal — deserve better. Those subject to his militarism abroad — from Yemen to Iraq — deserve better too. Their hardships matter as much as his, and their suffering ought not be glossed over in the interest of nationalistic mythmaking.
Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.