I did not expect to be so torn up upon Sen. John McCain’s death.
It’s difficult to sum up the counter-narrative against the hagiographic portrayal of McCain’s political career, but let’s try: He was overrated, in some ways dangerously. On domestic policy, he ably served the business community of Arizona. But that was never what mattered to him. (Recall, during the 2008 presidential campaign and ahead of the most calamitous financial collapse since the Great Depression, that he said he would beef up on economics by reading Alan Greenspan’s memoir.) Foreign policy was his passion, and he was the most prominent hawkish voice in American politics for decades. His single most lasting policy legacy will be his steadfast support of the Iraq War, which he only recently—and far too late—renounced. Were he to have had his way, American forces would have been far more involved various Middle East conflicts. We’re lucky that he did not always have his way, and we’re still dealing with the consequences of when he did.
And yet here I am, rushing to my computer late on a Saturday night because I couldn’t not write about him. I’m devastated.
What was it?
I did not, unlike his most consistently adoring journalists, cover his 2000 presidential campaign and shoot the breeze with him on the back of his bus. His eagerness to engage and joke with the media during that campaign created a generation of journalists willing, at times, to overlook some of his worst policy impacts. I mocked this treatment of McCain for many years early in my career. When I started covering Congress full time in late 2016, though, I began to at least understand where the adulation came from.
He was a character in a legislative institution that’s lost most of them. He could call you an idiot or a jerk and never oversaw an opportunity to describe your question as “stupid” or “bullshit.” He then maybe—maybe—would laugh, and give a full, thoughtful answer. And would, unnecessarily, apologize. The halls of Congress are filled with hundreds and hundreds—534, to be exact—of members and senators who haven’t lived one-thousandth of the life, celebrity, and import of John McCain, and yet don’t feel they have the time of day to answer questions from the press about critical issues. He knew that engaging in public debate was not beneath him. He respected the process. Most don’t.*
The first time I saw McCain in person was at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was, historically, a forgettable affair. Everyone knew that Barack Obama would win the election, and the contrast in hype between the RNC and the DNC in Denver couldn’t have been more comical. In Denver, aside from the thousands and thousands of additional people, there was a roughly one-mile security perimeter outside the arena in which the convention was held. In St. Paul, I remember just waltzing into the front door of the building. The first day of the convention had been canceled—there was another hurricane, and Republicans were still anxious, post–Hurricane Katrina, about the optics of living their lives amid a national disaster. The incumbent president, George W. Bush, was so unpopular that he only briefly spoke to the convention via recorded video. Only on the penultimate night, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin introduced herself to the nation with the sort of tainted red meat that would become the new flavor of the Republican base, was there finally a pulse in the arena. McCain’s speech the following night was supposed to be an afterthought.
The funny thing about it all? McCain’s keynote, delivered indoors to a base that still didn’t particularly trust him, and one week after Obama had given his speech at a columned stage in a football stadium twice the arena’s size, was the better speech, by far. McCain’s history as a prisoner of war during Vietnam was not a new story to anyone. And yet I’m not sure he had ever put it more beautifully than in the speech’s closing passage.
On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn’t any worry I wouldn’t come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn’t think there was a cause more important than me.
Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell and left to die. I didn’t feel so tough anymore. When they discovered my father was an admiral, they took me to a hospital. They couldn’t set my bones properly, so they just slapped a cast on me. When I didn’t get better and was down to about a hundred pounds, they put me in a cell with two other Americans. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even feed myself. They did it for me. I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life.
I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.
A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I’d been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I’d been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.
When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.
I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.
The most embarrassing story of my professional career as a political journalist happened in the summer of 2017. It was about 10 at night when the Senate was considering its bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Well, not really. The actual “repeal and replace” bills had all fallen for lack of support, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in his last-ditch effort, had drafted that very afternoon a legislative vehicle known as “skinny repeal.” It was just narrow enough, supposedly, to pass the Senate and get the chamber’s Republicans into formal negotiations with the House over a bigger repeal-and-replace package.
I don’t have a lot of energy. My thinking that night was that the important vote would be on final passage, presumed to be sometime around 5 or 6 in the morning, and that the procedural votes ahead of time would clear. McCain, after all, had gone along with a procedural vote early in the week to advance the process. I could get a few hours of sleep and return to the Senate around 5 a.m. So I left, around 11 p.m.
And just after that, McCain went into the Senate chamber, telling reporters who’d asked him about his vote to “wait for the show.” I cannot tell you how agonizing it was, from my couch miles away, to read tweets from fellow reporters about what was unfolding. I put my coat on and took a cab back to the Capitol. By the time I got there, McCain, along with Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, had just killed the health care bill—on a damned procedural vote—in one of the most dramatic floor votes in modern times. I missed it.
The so-called “Maverick” had always followed the same incentives any nationally ambitious politician would. After he was engulfed in scandal as part of the Keating Five in the late 1980s, McCain came back as a fierce fighter of corruption and of lax campaign finance laws. But when he needed to win state re-election in 2004, 2010, and 2016, he behaved as a loyal, conservative Republican. His voting record (outside of foreign policy) was always fairly predictable by the sort of electoral cycle he was in.
During that health care vote, McCain, who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, acted on the principle that was always within him, if not always in the forefront. He acted on behalf of something greater than himself, something that few top-tier politicians of his era ever have. We don’t—I don’t—even understand what we’ve lost.
Read more on the death of John McCain.
Correction, Aug. 25, 11:32 p.m. : This article originally referred McCain’s 434 colleagues in Congress.
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus