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McCain Agonistes

September 8, 2018

I served in Vietnam in 1968, the same time Senator McCain was there.  By chance I got to meet him, a couple years ago at the National Cemetery.  And I walked up to him and introduced myself.  I said, I also am a Vietnam vet, with two purple hearts.  He gave me the biggest bear hug.  And he whispered in my ear, he said, why didn’t you come get me.  And I said, if I knew you was there I would have.  So I’m here to show him respect, and the honor that he deserved.

(Recorded in a WaPo video, “’He gave the ultimate’: Arizonans bid McCain farewell.” Aug 30, 2018.  Begins at :59.)

John McCain grew up in a military family with plenty of money and plenty of status.  His father and grandfather were admirals. He graduated from the Naval Academy #894 of 899.  He became a pilot, and apparently a somewhat reckless one.  Then, on his 23rdbombing mission over Hanoi, his A-4E was hit by a missile.  He was injured by the explosion, and injured again by his immediate captors. In prison he was further injured by botched surgeries, severe torture, and two years in solitary confinement. In 1968, when his father was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam sector, the North Vietnamese offered him release; but even in the face of renewed torture he refused to be released until all Americans taken prisoner before him were released—more than five years later.  Arizonans elected him to the House in 1983 and then to the Senate.  In 2012 he was the Republican candidate for President.

My opinion and feelings about Senator McCain have been quite mixed.  I have held him in high regard for his rock-solid stand against torture, even when it was championed by Vice President Cheney and President GW Bush, and for his decisive, in-yo-face, thumbs down to Marse McConnell’s attempt to destroy Obamacare.  He knew from experience what it is to be psychologically (i.e. physically and emotionally) deeply wounded, and what the physical/psychological torture of an enemy combatant is; and from that same experience he knew what it is to need medical attention to a body that is broken.

At these moments, in the face of Republican politicians who had taken steps to avoid pain, and sacrifice, instead of risking their lives for their country and the humane principles that it imperfectly embodied and championed, as a politician M acted decisively to apply those principles to pursuit of truth and the common good.

He also voted against a tax policy that would funnel more of the national wealth to the already filthy rich, he championed campaign finance reform, he supported fair immigration policy, and he spoke the truth about climate change.

On the other hand, it often seemed to me that, for some reason, he betrayed his own principles and let his country down.  Was that caused by inherited point of view, rebelliousness, impulsiveness, impatience and anger, confusion, lapse of attention or momentarily weak judgment? All of the above?

He adopted the political nickname of “Maverick.”  But that could “maverick” mean within “Republican”?  In our time, one can’t really be a Republican and be a maverick.  To be a Republican is to serve the cause of a permanent plantation aristocracy.  Even given the increasing willingness of the Clintonian Democrats to serve the interests of the rich, at the expense of the poor and the middle class, while presenting themselves as the champions of the poor and the middle class, McCain’s humane and democratic principles should have made him a Democrat from Arizona.  Especially after Trompf became president.

I don’t want to oversimplify a long life and a long career in politics (or to draw too close an allusion to Sampson or Milton).  But I wonder if his whisper, one veteran of that wretched war to another, very private, emotion-charged, spontaneous, in a public place of high historical and personal significance, might be a key moment in the plot line of McCain, revealed only by a walk-on at the end of the tale.  (And heard almost accidentally by the present narrator.)

I’ve been thinking that one of the situations in which we get a glimpse of the soul, of a thing, including a human thing, is when it is put under great stress—injury, pain, destruction, death.  Here’s a military example, from watching, in WWII AAF film, a bomber, badly shot up by enemy fighters or flack, which it barely survived, lumbering down to earth, to attempt a landing at its home air base.  You can see the tears and holes in its body.  You know that some of the crew members are dead and others are alive but wounded, quite possibly dying.  Fire trucks and ambulances are out on the runway. In the stress of those things, plane and humans, and of the warfare of which they make an immediate part, you see the soul of their being, of our being, exhibit itself.  In its agony.  Its pathology.

I think that’s what that Arizona vet witnessed in the national cemetery, and testified to, by offering his tearful regret, respect, and honor.  It’s la condition humaine.

And I wonder if that agonized soul might be the key to McCain’s ambiguity, and ambivalence.  A steady state of confusion:  shock, grief, disbelief, and wonder.

Combat and torture failed to get him, but brain cancer did.  I believe he did his positive best, maybe especially as he planned his last national service; daughter Meghan spoke to all of that (with, I think, the same ambiguity; but I’ll sum what she said with a Shakespearian nothing breaks true love).  So while I go on wondering, I’ll close this page with President Obama’s testimony to McCain’s political best.

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