Opinion

As a Conservative, John McCain Was in a Class of His Own | Opinion

Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer at the age of 81, was in many ways in a class of his own. A storied war veteran and 36-year fixture in the U.S. Congress, he forged a career unlike any other in recent American political history.

McCain was born on August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo U.S. Naval Air Station Panama to Admiral John McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain. McCain’s grandfather, John Senior, had also been a four-star admiral. Graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, McCain became a naval aviator, and in 1967 he volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. On July 29 of that year, McCain narrowly escaped death when a rocket that was accidentally launched from another aircraft exploded in his aircraft while he was in the cockpit. McCain was able to jump clear, but the accident ignited a conflagration that nearly destroyed the USS Forrestal and killed 134 of its crew.

On his 23rd combat mission over North Vietnam, McCain’s plane was shot down with a surface-to-air missile. He survived the crash but was captured and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years.

After returning from Vietnam, McCain remained in the Navy until 1981, after which he embarked on a second career in politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives from Arizona in 1982, then to the Senate in1986. In 2000, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination against George W. Bush of Texas, but a second effort in 2008 secured him his party’s nomination.

During that campaign, eager to gain the support of the more conservative wing of the Republican Party, McCain lurched further to the right than his own convictions might otherwise have dictated. His most momentous decision was choosing as his running mate the largely unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

Only recently did McCain suggest that he had actually considered the extraordinary step of  choosing Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democrat, as his running mate but was persuaded by his campaign advisers to select Palin instead. Whatever really happened, the decision reinforced McCain’s reputation as a self-styled political “maverick.” While beloved by the conservative grassroots, Palin proved to be an ignorant, inept liability. And in the end, she and McCain were roundly defeated by Barack Obama.

GettyImages-51535630 Senator John McCain at the end his luncheon speech at the Manchester Boys & Girls Club on January 5, 2000. He was campaigning at the time to become president of the United States. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Image

McCain was undoubtedly a conservative. He was a supporter of Reaganomics, and he and his first wife were close friends of the Reagans for a time. In 1983, McCain voted against the establishment of a Martin Luther King national holiday; he opposed gun control and also abortion.

He consistently promoted a hawkish foreign policy, supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2007 counterinsurgency “surge” that saw an additional 20,000 American troops dispatched to the country. More recently, he supported U.S. intervention in Syria and favored an aggressive policy toward Iran and North Korea.

But from the outset of his political career, McCain was also prepared to oppose the norms of modern Republicanism on points of personal conviction. He spent years declaring his belief in global warming, pressing for political campaign finance reform, and was not afraid to make common cause with Democrats as an advocate for offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

Most recently, McCain established himself as the “acceptable face of Republicanism” as opposed to the current occupant of the White House. After the 2016 election, McCain butted heads with the Trump administration many times, in particular supporting the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the electoral process.

According to McCain, his diagnosis of brain cancer in July 2017 left him free to “vote my conscience without worry,” famously flying back to Washington against the advice of his doctors to vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) on July 25, spelling the end of a Republican promise. In the last weeks of his life, McCain opposed the confirmation of Gina Haspel as the new director of the CIA, saying “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

McCain always had his critics. Some attacked his temperament; others, including the current president, questioned the reality behind the cultivated maverick-warrior image he presented in his three memoirs—the last of which, The Restless Wave, was published only this year. But if McCain’s memoirs were indeed rather shallow works of self-promotion, that’s just an example of the politician’s stock-in-trade.

Yes, McCain undeniably milked his experience as a prisoner of war for all it was worth. But that, too, is hardly unusual for a U.S. politician with a service background—and the price McCain paid during his years in the “Hanoi Hilton” was far higher than anything asked of most of his posturing colleagues.

McCain’s political legacy will always be somewhat tarnished by his crass decision to elevate Palin, whose rise inadvertently encouraged the same bitter and intolerant anti-intellectual conservatism that defines the era of Donald Trump. But that was only one chapter in a career spanning more than three and a half decades. Right up until his death, McCain worked to promote a more inclusive, principled conservatism. One day, that might be recognized as his true legacy.

Ian Horwood is a senior lecturer in history at York St. John University, U.K.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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