The Two John McCains
As you’re undoubtedly aware, John McCain recently died of a brain tumor. Since then, his death and his dramatic, politically charged funeral have dominated the news cycle in a way that’s rare, if not entirely unheard of for a politician who was never elected President.
Discussion of McCain and his legacy has dominated my Facebook and Twitter feed along with everyone else’s. I’ve been struck by how violently divided the response to his death has been. McCain had a reputation for reaching across the aisle and engaging with Democrats as friends, allies and colleagues. So it’s unsurprising that even in these hyper-partisan times, McCain’s appeal crossed party lines.
McCain’s enemy Donald Trump was not invited to his funeral, nor was McCain’s 2008 running mate Sarah Palin, but George Bush and Barack Obama both delivered eulogies and McCain’s pallbearers included Democratic former Senator Russ Feingold, Vice President Joe Biden and lefty actor and filmmaker Warren Beatty.
On my timeline, McCain was lionized as a maverick and a hero who served his country with his distinction first as a solider and then as a politician as well as an exemplar of dignity and courage in an ugly and degraded political realm. But he was also demonized as a greedy, hypocritical war criminal whose actions did not match his rhetoric or his reputation as an iconoclast always willing to put country over party.
Deranged political cartoonist Ben Garrison had the ugliest, most vicious and inexcusable reaction to McCain’s Cancer and death. The crazed Trump super-fan was so inspired by his deep, visceral hatred of McCain and all he stood for that he devoted multiple cartoons to viciously mocking the beloved and despised Senator from Arizona.
In a typically tasteful, nuanced strip, McCain is depicted as a cancerous boil being surgically removed from the skull of a sickly Uncle Sam while screaming such well-known McCain catchphrases as “War!”, “Keep Obamacare!”, “More Trannies in the Military!”, “Bomb Iran” and, of course, “Impeach Trump.”
As is invariably the case with Garrison, the face of the cancerous boil version of the then-dying political giant is contorted with ugly, hateful rage towards the President. In Garrison’s world, Trump is depicted as a cool customer, confident, unflappable and even-keeled, never one to lose his temper or compromise his manly dignity.
Not to be outdone, Garrison followed it with an equally horrifying strip that depicts McCain, his face once again a hideous mask of pure hatred and insanity, crashing into a grave reading John “Songbird” McCain (which I don’t imagine is a flattering reference to McCain having a lovely voice) in a fighter plane with steam coming out of his ears as he screams “Go to Hell”, which Garrison none too subtly indicates is McCain’s true eternal resting place.
To Garrison and other Trump super-fans, McCain was a dirty Democrat lover who betrayed his country in Vietnam and then his party when he clashed repeatedly with Trump and embodied the Never Trump coalition. To McCain detractors on the left, McCain was a warmonger who participated in an unjust war and proudly wore the title of “Maverick” while overwhelmingly supporting his party and their toxic agenda.
To McCain’s fans on the Left, he was the one acceptable Republican, a man whose character and integrity were as unquestionable as his love of his country. He was a hero whose heroism transcended party and ideology and gave politicians, particularly Republicans, something to aspire to. Moreover, the final years of McCain’s life were dominated by his war of words with Trump, who looks like even more of a sniveling, corrupt draft dodger when compared to his political nemesis.
These radically different portrayals of one man’s life and legacy reflect the Hot Take nature of our current political discourse, where angry, strident extremes attract the most attention and, by extension, Likes, Re-Tweets and page-views.
In McCain’s death, two violently competing narratives wrestled for dominance in the American public’s collective imagination. One portrayed him as the best our country has to offer and the other depicting a hateful, hypocritical monster whose death should be celebrated rather than mourned.
The truth, inevitably, falls somewhere in the middle. The tributes and condemnations of McCain that sprang up in the aftermath of his death tended to deal in black and white but McCain, like all of us, lived in shades of grey. He was alternately heroic and brave, compromised and calculating, capable of great hypocrisy and acts of tremendous courage. He was larger than life. He embodied sometime pure about the American character and he was tremendously flawed and all too human.
To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, McCain was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?
When all of the hyperbolic rhetoric, good and bad, pro and con, dies down we might be able to more accurately and unemotionally assess McCain’s complicated legacy. But for now it’s important to remember that McCain wasn’t a pure hero or a hateful villain, but rather a complex combination of the two who, judging from the overwhelming response to his death, might just loom larger in death than he did in life, which is, to me, the mark of a true legend.
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