Remembering John McCain’s strengths and weaknesses

In the next few days, expect many to laud John McCain’s military and political heroism while spending less time frankly discussing his weaknesses.

Biographers will note his long and successful marriage to Cindy McCain, but may not mention that he had divorced the wife who had faithfully waited years for his return from Vietnam to marry Cindy.

We will praise McCain for his willingness to correct his followers when they called Barack Obama “an Arab” or “a terrorist.” We will recall the graciousness of McCain’s concession speech on election night, and note the times he refused to resort to overt racism in his attempts to defeat Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

It will take longer to balance this with the fact he had selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate for that 2008 race and that Palin, woefully unprepared for federal office, had unleashed and encouraged many of the forces of intolerance and extremism McCain later had to rebuff. McCain had watched much of this extremism, mostly in silence, until it became too marked to ignore.

McCain saved Obamacare; that cannot be denied. His late-night vote against his own party’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act saved medical insurance coverage for millions of Americans. He was not, initially, as generous about voting for a Martin Luther King Day holiday earlier in his career.

Why one vote, but not the other?

Perhaps McCain’s own diagnosis with glioblastoma, a virulent form of brain cancer, just before the Obamacare vote had made him conscious of others’ need for medical care and, therefore for medical insurance to cover the expenses of treatment. In other words, sometimes McCain needed the prompt of his own brokenness to care about the brokenness of the rest of us. In the areas of his life where McCain had only enjoyed privilege, and not brokenness, his policies were often more damaging.

When the final tally is made of the death and disaster that were the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain’s advocacy will have to be reckoned with. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain’s support of military intervention was unwavering. Might he have seen the wars differently had he seen them through the eyes of a child of Iraq or Afghanistan rather than through the eyes of a U.S. military careerist?

McCain had survived crises that would have brought down a lesser man. Few today recall his involvement in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s as one of the Keating Five. Accused of using undue political influence on behalf of disgraced banker Frank Keating, almost every other politician caught up in the scandal saw his career destroyed or diminished. McCain rebounded. Was that survival due to unmatched political gifts or to an unforgettable personal story? Given that pioneering astronaut and national hero John Glenn was the other senator to survive the scandal, there is reason to suspect it was their histories — and not their political acumen — that brought them through.

In the end, McCain’s brokenness made him a politician whose career is worth noting. He was, in Hemingway’s words, “strong at the broken places.”

McCain came through his experience of captivity and torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese a braver, stronger, more resolute man than he’d been before his ordeal. It gave him the fortitude to oppose his own party, as he did in his opposition to George W. Bush’s administration’s use of torture, a position born of his actual experience at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. After this experience, he was, at key moments in his career, willing to rise above party and to put the concerns of others above his own political survival. In the days to come, his career as a political maverick will be remembered fondly, as it should be.

In the immediate aftermath of anyone’s death, we feel our own mortality, and the initial response is mercy for the departed and their bereaved loved ones. We are not wrong to mourn the passing of an era or admit pain at this death. Nevertheless, while we, as a nation, grieve John McCain’s death, we must also begin to reckon with his legacy. That reckoning is a longer, messier process that requires both time and distance from the man himself.

Valerie C. Cooper is an Associate Professor of Religion and Society, and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School.

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