When John McCain was 22 years old, in April 1968, he was placed in solitary confinement in the cells of the Hoa Lo Prison for refusing his early release – out of order from other soldiers who had been captured before him. He remained there for five years, and the Viet Cong tortured him viciously the entire time. His father, Jack McCain, was commander-in-chief of the United States’ Pacific Command and controlled nearly all of the United States’ naval assets. McCain could have asked to be released at any time, but he refused to step out of line. He saved the lives of dozens of American citizens, and if anything qualifies a person for heroism, that would be it. But following his death, it’s become clear that the John McCain that America has chosen to remember is already a step removed from the man who lived, and the parts that we have cherry-picked to amplify in his memory say a great deal more to our future than to his past.
In the days following the news of his death, very little was made of the more serious issues lurking in the Annapolis alumnus’ decorated history. No one mentioned McCain’s willing participation in the conflict that eventually resulted in his capture, or his racist opinions of Vietnamese and other Asian peoples. Even less was said about his aggressive immigration policies, like his sponsoring of the Criminal Alien Deportation Act of 2015. No one considered his repeated attempts, right up until his death, to defund the Affordable Care Act and deprive millions of Americans of health coverage. In fact, very little of the darker side of McCain’s aggressive conservative policy decisions received any press coverage in the days and weeks leading up to and following his death. Even when he voted down the ‘skinny’ Obamacare repeal plan, less than 24 hours after he voted the dangerously underprepared bill into debate in the first place, analysts praised his ‘maverick’ tactics. Few would read the brief issued by McCain’s team after the vote, where it was revealed the only reason he voted the bill down was because he believed it didn’t gut Obamacare enough.
Instead they lauded his legislative dedication, how he sponsored more than 50 bills in his Senate career. He was memorialized by his ability to compromise, his strong personal principles and his strong opposition to torture during the Bush administration. He was simultaneously always willing to compromise and unbending in his personal beliefs; politicians applauded his ability to “reach across the aisle” and formulate bipartisan policy. He filled his resume with decades of dedicated public service.
This is all to say that like many things about America and its servants, John McCain was complicated – he was only a person. In the face of rising political uncertainty, it’s particularly entrancing to enshrine those who have served with distinction, regardless of their voting record or personal opinions, but in the case of politicians and public officials, it is inherently disingenuous to equate their tenure or dedication to service as what makes them worthy of mythologizing. It’s true that McCain did his duty, serving his state and its citizens for more than 20 years, but that doesn’t make him a hero. That’s not to say that he isn’t one – much can and has been said about the tortures he suffered to protect the lives of his fellow soldiers, and that alone makes him worthy of remembrance. However, the controversial policies he supported while in office tell a story of a different John McCain, one who was more than willing to put the needs of the Republican party agenda over those of impoverished and struggling Americans and who dedicated himself to supporting three decades of misconstrued intervention in countries across the world. The true danger of memorializing John McCain as an American hero is that by doing so we normalize his harmful policies and thereby overwrite the suffering he caused in his years of dedicated service. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an American hero, but the second we forgive the crimes of the past for the sake of a stable, ‘normal’ present, we erode the humanity of everyone involved. John McCain could have been everything we hoped for in a public servant, but that doesn’t mean he should be free from our scrutiny, or our disappointment.