Many people were saddened by John McCain’s death on Aug. 25 after a year-long battle with brain cancer.
The 81-year-old military hero and former Republican presidential candidate honourably served Arizona both in the U.S. House of Representatives (1983-1987) and in the Senate (1987-2018).
McCain was generally onside with fiscal and social conservative ideas. Nevertheless, he regularly frustrated fellow Republicans. He had a reputation as a maverick who would buck his party if he felt they were wrong or misguided.
It was a defining characteristic of his complex character and moral compass. Much in the same way he had a notorious temper that occasionally flared up, an intellectual curiosity in people, places and things, a love of books ranging from fiction to history, the incredible ability to forgive others (including the Vietnamese, who brutally tortured him), and a strong belief in promoting bipartisan legislation.
That’s why he asked Republicans (George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger), Democrats (Barack Obama, Joe Biden) and an independent (Joe Lieberman) to eulogize him, either when he was lying in state in Phoenix or at the service at Washington’s National Cathedral. He had friends and colleagues from across the aisle, and respected their ideas, principles and values.
Two individuals were asked not to attend, however.
First was U.S. President Donald Trump. This was unsurprising, since they had a volatile relationship. It went back to Trump’s repugnant comment about McCain during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
They continued to criticize one another, publicly and privately. It doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of calm, and small bits of praise here and there. But there was no way to align their personalities, political ideas and competing visions for America in the world. Their divisions were beyond repair.
The other person was Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor and McCain’s 2008 vice-presidential running mate.
This caught some political observers off guard. McCain and Palin had been respectful of one another in public after losing to the Obama-Biden presidential ticket. If there were any ill feelings, they had buried them in the political boneyard.
But it wasn’t a big secret in political circles that McCain had serious reservations about Palin and they never disappeared. In his memoir, The Restless Wave (2018), he acknowledged regret in accepting the advice of Republican strategists to choose her for the ticket rather than his close friend Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent. “It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” he wrote. “But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.”
There were also some suggestions that McCain felt his selection of Palin had inadvertently led to Trump’s political rise. As the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote on Aug. 31, she “helped stir up and elevate certain factions on the right – notably the kind of people who called Barack Obama an ‘Arab.’ Eight years later, America elected a man to the White House who had questioned Obama’s birth certificate and whose base of voters fit neatly into the same categories as those who supported Palin.”
While it’s hard to say whether McCain felt this way, it certainly sounds plausible.
Some have argued that McCain tainted his image by asking Trump and Palin to stay away. For the record, neither individual was formally blocked from showing up – although they both obviously respected his wishes. It should also be pointed out that Vice-President Mike Pence spoke about McCain at the Capitol rotunda, while Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, attended the cathedral service.
Yes, it could have been handled differently, but it was his funeral and his decision to make.
McCain was an imperfect beast who marched to the beat of his own drum, and often drove adversaries and colleagues to the brink of despair. Yet his championing of limited government and a muscular foreign policy, and opposing racism and intolerance, helped make the U.S. a better country.
He was a maverick in life and death. Rest in peace, noble warrior.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.