My Fellow Prisoners
On John McCain
John McCain and Mark Salter, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
There is a right way to swear, a right way to spit, a right way to roll a cigarette on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a right way to drink wine on the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto, a right way to get gored by a bull, a right way to dismantle a welfare program, a right way to blow up a bridge, a right way to taunt your captors, a right way to catch a bonefish, a right way to lead, a right way to serve, and finally there is a right way to die.
The right way is the heroic way and the manly way, which happens also to be the moral or ethical way, which happens in turn to be the picturesque way. You will sometimes fail to follow the right way, in which case there is a right way to grimace and a right way to atone.
“Most current fiction bores the shit out of me,” said John McCain in 2006, surprising no one. He always gravitated toward the lost generation, Ernest Hemingway above all. If we are to believe McCain’s account, when he was 12 (this would be 1948) he found two four-leaf clovers in the yard and ran inside to preserve them in the pages of a book. From his father’s shelves he happened to grab For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his eyes lighted upon this:
“What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.
“Shoot thee, Pablo.”
“When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.
“Now,” said Pablo.
“Where?” asked the man.
“Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. Have you anything to say?”
“Nada,” said the civil. “Nothing but it is an ugly thing.”
This is the scene in which Pablo, leader of a band of Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, kills four policemen and has the town’s fascists flailed to death.
The mature McCain who relates this anecdote admires Hemingway’s “austere glare at the savagery that war can coax from even good-natured people,” and notes that the scene “should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting.” There is a wrong way to kill fascists. But young McCain was beguiled: Hemingway’s account of the Spanish Civil War “gave flight to a boy’s romantic notions of courage and love, of idealistic men and women ennobled by their selflessness and the misuse and betrayal they suffered for it.”
Maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.Tweet
The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor of Spanish who has come to blow up a bridge for the Republican side. He falls in love with a girl named Maria. Despite Pablo’s treachery and the mission’s increasing risk and his own doubt that blowing up the bridge will really accomplish anything, Jordan does his duty. Old McCain recounts his younger self’s breathless page-turning:
Hemingway, the rascal, allows the reader a brief moment of hope with a quick feint toward a happy ending as the hero nearly escapes his fate and rides to a better life with his new love. . . . I, still smug because I had penetrated the story’s early mysteries, fell for it and cheered silently.
But instead of a happy ending we get a picturesque death, which, young McCain realizes, is an even happier ending. Jordan is injured by an explosion, orders to safety the Spaniards he has come to love, drags himself to a tree, and waits there with a gun. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” he thinks as he dies. That line gave McCain the title for his second memoir — Worth the Fighting For — in which he fondly recounts this romantic reading. “How great it made me feel as I closed the book and charged on with my young life,” old McCain remembers, “aspiring to Jordan’s courage and nobility and certain I would possess it someday.”
It must be nice to have a favorite book, and to have it remain your favorite book your whole life. McCain reread For Whom the Bell Tolls many times, but the first impression of a 12-year-old looking for models of greatness and manly exertion — “how and why to be brave, how a real hero lives and dies” — remained the truest impression. No older, wiser reading could supplant it. To read Hemingway and fall for it, to enjoy falling for it, to think it is your destiny to fall for it — maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.
McCain’s impending death was an oddly public event, an extended civic ritual. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2017. He flew from Arizona to Washington DC for one last Senate performance, saving Obamacare but not really saving Obamacare. He then flew back to Arizona for treatment. News spread that he was planning his own funeral, a rare luxury, and that Donald Trump was not invited. Eulogies were written and published in advance. They were always eulogies for something larger: for nondespicable Republicanism, for “regular order,” for compromise, for another America. It was hard to parse what died with McCain from what was already dead and what still lived. Those eulogies in turn elicited anti-eulogies, reminding us that the real McCain betrayed the virtues he was pre-eulogized for embodying.
The interesting thing about McCain was not his politics, which were, by and large, predictably Republican. His sanctimony masked nepotism, self-interest, and political expediency. His concrete political legacy is not the timeless virtue of sacrifice, but catastrophic war. Yet for decades he has remained interesting as a figure of myth, and that mythology invites something like a literary analysis. One is speaking here less of McCain himself than of McCainology. It is a slippery subject; McCainology usually says as much about the McCainologist as it does about McCain. The aura of a unique ordeal followed him from his captivity in Vietnam into politics, and McCain himself (the first and most devoted McCainologist) cultivated that aura. The question of authenticity has been McCainology’s main preoccupation, but it is a red herring. I am asking other questions: If McCain were a fictional character, which he kind of was, then what is his story about? And when was it written? And why did we read it?
The beginning is always the same. McCain was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967, on a bombing raid. He broke both arms and one knee as he ejected the plane. When he landed in a small lake a crowd pulled him out, smashed his shoulder, and bayoneted him in the groin. He was taken to the Hanoi Hilton prison. His injuries were not treated for days, and never treated properly; thereafter he could never raise his arms above his shoulders. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war. For the first two years he endured solitary confinement, interrupted by torture and interrogation.
Because he was the son of an admiral, McCain’s captors offered him early release, which he refused. In his memoir of the experience, Faith of My Fathers, he recalls debating the decision with the prisoner in the next cell. They communicated via coded wall taps, which the book renders as spoken dialogue:
“You don’t know if you can survive this,” he argued. “The seriously injured can go home.”
“I think I can make it,” I replied.
McCain refused out of adherence to the US Armed Forces’ Code of Conduct, which demands that prisoners be released in the order they were captured. He knew an early release would be fodder for enemy propaganda. He also figured that his captors would taunt the remaining prisoners with the tale of the pampered admiral’s son. His refusal brought worse torture and three more years of captivity.
For four days he was beaten every two hours. He tried to hang himself with a shirt but was stopped by the guard and beaten again. The memoir is matter-of-fact on this point: “I doubt I really intended to kill myself. But I couldn’t fight anymore, and I remember deciding that the last thing I could do to make them believe I was still resisting, that I wouldn’t break, was to attempt suicide. Obviously, it wasn’t an ideal plan, but it struck me at the time as reasonable.” Finally, broken, he signed a false confession. In what will become a common McCain motif, he cannot forgive himself this dishonor, but it is offered in such a way that the reader forgives him. And he in turn can forgive other prisoners who are similarly broken.
On March 14, 1973, McCain and 107 other American POWs were released. But the climax of Faith of My Fathers comes not when the hero regains his physical freedom, but rather when he accepts his captivity and understands it as a form of grace: “In prison, where my cherished independence was mocked and assaulted, I found my self-respect in a shared fidelity to my country. All honor comes with obligations. I and the men with whom I served had accepted ours, and we were grateful for the privilege.”
Captivity defines McCain as much for what he missed as for what he experienced. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the Prague Spring; the Tet Offensive; Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 election; Democrats in Chicago and George Wallace in Alabama. McCain was in prison through Richard Nixon’s election and reelection, and through the entire television run of Laugh-In. The My Lai Massacre and its exposure; “Vietnamization”; the bombing of Cambodia; the lottery phase of the military draft; the American Indian Movement; Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol; Miles Davis going electric; Woodstock, Altamont, and the Isle of Wight; Portnoy’s Complaint and Planet of the Apes; Norman Mailer’s absurdist bid for mayor of New York (“Vote the Rascals In”); the Kent State shooting; the trial of Angela Davis; the founding of the EPA; Roe v. Wade; John Kerry asking the Senate how they could “ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake”; The Joy of Sex in its original, hirsute coffee-table-book form; The Godfather; Gravity’s Rainbow; the first Earth Day; the last Bonanza.
It is intriguing which glimmers of the era make their way into McCain’s account. At the Hanoi Hilton the day began with a half-hour radio propaganda breakfast from Hanoi Hannah, broadcasted on the Voice of Vietnam. The prisoners heard about “antiwar activities and incidents of civil strife” and speeches by “prominent American opponents of the war.” In 1972, Hanoi Hannah unwittingly let the cat out of the bag about the moon landing (the moon landing!), broadcasting “George McGovern chastising Nixon for putting a man on the moon but failing to end the war.” The prisoners became cultural time capsules.
McCain was born in 1936, a decade before the baby boomers whose defining experiences he did not witness. His captivity compounded this generational distance. It is not enough to say that he “missed the Sixties.” Captivity insulated him from both the counterculture and the counter-counterculture. He became more filiopietistic while the rest of the culture rebelled against their parents. Their disillusionment coincided with his reillusionment.
Draft evasion was as essential to the boomer experience as the war itself. For McCain, who was both older and born into a military family, the draft was not an issue. Nor was he one of the boomer-age conscripted soldiers who actually had to fight the war that the privileged could avoid. He thus had little in common with the figure of the traumatized veteran, wrecked by the war, spat on (though this is a myth) by antiwar protesters. His character resonated with neither the powerful First Blood, in which the Vietnam vet John Rambo breaks down and weeps, nor the crude Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?” As a senator, McCain pushed back against the Rambo fantasy that POWs remain in Vietnam. This caused discord with some veterans and some Republicans, for whom the unsaved missing-in-action were a symbol of the war’s nonresolution.
To have been a POW was, at least, an insulation against being ordered to murder en masse for the state. McCain’s dishonor was to break after four days of torture. His forced confession admitted to “crimes against the Vietnamese country and people.” But he was spared the guilt, shame, or trauma of having committed the crimes themselves. His confession could remain false.
The congregation of POWs could keep the faith while the rest of the country lost it. In Faith of My Fathers, their captors taunt that they’d been “abandoned . . . by a country busy with a war that wasn’t going well and too torn apart by widespread domestic turmoil to worry about a few forgotten pilots in Hanoi.” Those pilots became heroes and martyrs, with allegory-ready names like Mike Christian, who sewed an American flag into his shirt, was beaten for it, and began immediately to sew another. “We clung to our belief, each one encouraging the other,” McCain writes, “with a steady resolve that our honor was the extension of a great nation’s honor, and that both prisoner and country would do what honor asked of us.” The “great nation’s honor” was never lost. The center held.
Few former POWs have entered national politics, and McCain was the only one to run for President. In 1977 he began the shift from a military career to a political one, serving as the navy’s liaison to the Senate. In 1980 he divorced his first wife and married into the Arizona beer aristocracy. His second wife, Cindy, is the daughter of Jim Hensley, whose beer distributorship grew up with the Sunbelt; the millions who moved to the Southwest from the 1950s onward washed down their Republican votes with a cool Anheuser-Busch beverage brought to them by Hensley & Company. Cindy bought a house in Arizona’s First Congressional District the minute a seat opened there in 1982. McCain, who had not grown up with the Sunbelt, faced the charge that his Arizona roots were only as deep as his rich wife’s strategic purchase of property. He had a ready answer: military families, he snapped back, lacked the luxury of a stable, rooted upbringing, and that “as a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
McCain told his POW stories many times, and he heard them repeated back to him many times. It becomes rote. Consider a forgotten detail from the 2008 election. It is October 8, a month before the vote, and McCain is speaking in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Behind him are his running mate, Sarah Palin, and his daughter Meghan, both looking bored. McCain gives his standard stump speech, peppered with antique refrains of “my friends” and “my fellow Americans.” He’s supposed to say, “This is the agenda I have set before my fellow citizens,” but instead he says, “This is the agenda I have set before my fellow prisoners.”
The snap judgment at the time was that old man McCain was “losing it.” But a Freudian slip is not a sign of senility or madness; it reveals a deeper truth. Captivity is the master trope of McCain’s life and career. Over the years, he faced the charge that he was irreparably damaged by his time in prison: that he suffered from PTSD, that he was nuts, that his famous temper was a sign of mental injury. He’d say the opposite was true. In 1999, before his first presidential run, he let a select group of journalists look through fifteen hundred pages of his psychiatric records. They revealed that in 1973, a navy psychiatrist had observed that McCain had “adjusted exceptionally well to repatriation.” Not only did he emerge with his faculties intact; captivity comes across as a kind of therapy. McCain “has been preoccupied with escaping being in the shadow of his father and establishing his own image and identity in the eyes of others,” the psychiatrist wrote. “He feels his experience and performance as POW finally permitted this to happen.” McCain “felt that he had profited by his experience and had changed significantly” and had “learned more about himself, about others.”
In our era, captivity makes McCain unusual. He is less unusual the further back we look. Faith of My Fathers is a belated entry in a foundational American genre: the captivity narrative. McCain’s fellow prisoners include John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, who was captured by Powhatan and rescued by Pocahontas in 1607, as well as Mary Rowlandson, who was held for three months by the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett in 1676. The genre stretches forward to Daniel Boone among the Shawnee and beyond. Captivity narratives were so common in colonial history that Benjamin Franklin wrote a parody version.
It is instructive to read Faith of My Fathers alongside Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, which was published in 1682 and reprinted many times over the following century. As American items — movies, the flag — become sacred to McCain in the Hanoi Hilton, so relics of Englishness bolster Rowlandson through her harrowing “removes” from civilization. Captivity narratives are suspenseful not because the captive won’t be saved — she lives to tell the tale, after all — but because of the violations and betrayals she may have to endure and commit along the way. Religious conversion offers the profoundest resolution, and Rowlandson’s and McCain’s are both conversion narratives. The journey from captivity to redemption tracks the journey from sin to salvation.
Captivity narratives are also terribly unreliable, written after-the-fact. (McCain’s was coconstructed with Mark Salter, his all-purpose Boswell.) They make something coherent out of a perhaps unnarratable trauma, or a chaos, or what Rowlandson calls “that distressed time.” What brings order to such experience is divine providence. Rowlandson, like McCain, ponders suicide, but “the wonderful goodness of God” keeps her from using “wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life.” Providence guides her fingers to just the right page of the Bible, a Bible also delivered to her by providence. McCain is given similar revelations. “Once I was thrown into another cell after a long and difficult interrogation,” he recalls. “I discovered scratched into one of the cell’s walls the creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty.’ . . . I felt God’s love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral.” Cosmic coincidences will lend his tribulations an air of destiny and design. He will refuse early release on the very same day his father assumes command of the navy in the Pacific: the Fourth of July, 1968.
The captive becomes a proxy for her society as a whole: John Smith stands in for all Britons, Mary Rowlandson for Puritan New England. They chronicle harrowing experiences on the empire’s frontier and make those experiences meaningful to the center. Rowlandson’s is an allegorical ordeal in the wilderness, preserving Englishness against savage violation. John McCain, privileged son cast into mortal danger, can likewise represent America itself. The imperial hegemon is no longer a hegemon but a scrappy underdog, held in bondage. His prayers become your prayers. Whatever war or conquest of which the captivity was an episode can therefore be redeemed as well.
Captivity gave McCain a mystique. But it was also a hurdle: he was not the kind of politician who could represent or embody common experience. The experience he embodied is absolutely uncommon. His political appeal depended on a spectacular and terrifying experience few will have and no sane person would want. An elite navy brat has no obvious constituency in a representative democracy; nor, paradoxically, does the redeemed captive. The captive is a proxy for the polity, not a participant in it. The timeless virtues of the congregation of captives — courage, service, mission, honor, sacrifice — carry one only so far in a battle of interests and distributions. And someone else’s impossible sacrifice can be off-putting.
It is customary to speak of a “Vietnam syndrome” in American foreign policy. Ronald Reagan used the phrase to identify an American reluctance, born of guilt or defeat, to deploy military might, and he saw a renewed bellicosity as the cure. George H. W. Bush said after the Persian Gulf War, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” As a member of Congress, McCain embraced Reagan’s cold war, but not as overcompensation for defeat in Vietnam — or at least not principally. After the cold war ended, McCain was instrumental in normalizing relations with Vietnam, alongside the draft-dodging boomer Bill Clinton and the veteran-turned-antiwar-activist John Kerry. But he was otherwise critical of the “self-doubt” he saw in Clinton’s foreign policy, and he attributed that self-doubt to “the mindset of a culture formed in opposition to the Vietnam War.”
McCain had even less patience for the ’90s-era reckonings of the war’s original architects. The wartime secretary of defense Robert McNamara turned confessional and apologetic in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, in search of whatever wisdom “the lessons of Vietnam” might hold. In 1997 he convened a conference in Hanoi of aged American and Vietnamese statesmen to rehash the decision-making on both sides. The transcripts, gathered into a book called Argument Without End, amount to a revealing and frustrating document. Neediness characterizes the American side: a need to be thought well-intentioned, a need to convince the Vietnamese that we had not in fact been “neoimperialists.” Our anti-imperialist mind-set was genuine; our belief in the domino theory was real. We were “wrong, terribly wrong,” but not evil.
Mind-set and tragedy are important words for McNamara: once you’ve admitted that your enemy had a mind-set you didn’t understand — for instance, that the Vietnamese were driven more by anticolonial nationalism than by pro-Soviet Communism — you can then lament misunderstanding as “tragic,” and take solace in misunderstandings at least being mutual. This leads McNamara to clunky formulations like this one: “I am damn certain we didn’t understand that that was your belief. So I think it’s a tragedy that we allowed that misunderstanding to exist.”
Is false consciousness interesting? One answer to McNamara is that the US could be an empire without having an imperialist “mind-set.” The Vietnamese, for their part, could respond to murky mind-sets with bracing clarity: “You are wrong to call the war a ‘tragedy,’” General Vo Nguyen Giap says to McNamara on the first day. “Maybe it was a tragedy for you, because yours was a war of aggression, in the neocolonialist ‘style.’ . . . You wanted to replace the French; you failed; men died; so, yes, it was tragic, because they died for a bad cause.” McCain chose bracing clarity over hand-wringing retrospect. “What,” he asks in Worth the Fighting For, “did Robert McNamara expect to learn from his former foes?” Undignified and soft-boiled, McNamara’s delegation deserved the cool reception they got. There is a wrong way to lose a war.
McNamara suffered existentially but not physically; McCain had suffered physically but not existentially. His second memoir cuts through McNamara’s argument-without-end with a fond portrait of Nguyen Co Thach, the foreign minister of Vietnam with whom McCain had worked on diplomatic normalization. Thach, it so happened, had been imprisoned by the French in the very same prison where McCain would end up — he is another of McCain’s fellow prisoners — and he sometimes met McCain while wearing a tie embroidered with little heads of Adam Smith. They could laugh about it. That’s where real history is, where a personal bond between former foes means something, damnit, where you might lose your temper about war reparations but then drink it out and resolve a diplomatic impasse with a hard-boiled joke: I bet the food was better when it was a French prison!
McCain’s own reckoning with the legacy of the Vietnam War was both contradictory and somehow uncomplicated. He admitted that the war would have been better left unfought, yet he also insisted that it was winnable. He held to the line, common in the military circles that despise McNamara, that a more aggressive effort would have prevailed if the US had pursued it and not lost “the will to fight.”
One can imagine a toxic version of this, but McCain held to it without apparent bitterness. He could afford to do so because national honor was affirmed rather than eroded in the Hanoi Hilton. The war was, for him, not a generational event but a familial one. Such is the tightness of the McCain family drama that his own father was commander in chief of the Pacific. Admiral John Sidney McCain Jr. pushed hard for renewed attacks on the territory of North Vietnam and bristled for years against politicians’ “half measures.” The US halted bombings of North Vietnam in 1968; bombing resumed in March 1972, in response to North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive. The POWs in McCain’s account welcomed the bombing as a sign of American commitment: “As the bombing campaign intensified, our morale soared with every sortie.” The father orders the bombs that might kill his captive son; the son in turn narrates this as the noble carrying out of a duty.
This is not to say that there was nothing for McCain to resolve in the legacy of Vietnam, only that he gravitated toward a particular kind of resolution: vivid and novelistic, gestural rather than ideological. There is a right way to lose a war. He first returned to Vietnam in 1985, for a CBS documentary. “There was a great deal of pain here, a great deal of suffering, a great deal of loneliness,” McCain says in his old cell in Hanoi. “There was also a lot of courage displayed. And a lot of love, love for one another, that I think Americans are uniquely capable of.” (Americans: uniquely capable of love!) He returned again in the ’90s: “Curiously, I felt little emotion at all beyond sympathy for the poor bastards who were living there now,” McCain wrote in Worth the Fighting For. “It had been a long time. What’s past is past.”
The climactic resolution comes not in his old cell but in, of all places, Ho Chi Minh’s vacation villa. During McCain’s captivity a prison commander told him about a place in Ha Long Bay “that Ho had used to relax.” As a senator, McCain hints to a Vietnamese vice foreign minister that he’d like to see it. Sure enough, on one of his diplomatic trips, his hosts arrange him a stay. “And a few nights later,” he writes,
as I breathed the warm breezes off the bay that blew through the unshuttered windows, snuffed out the candle on the table next to me, and laid my head on the pillow, in the bed, in the house where Ho had slept, I knew I had received all the recompense I was likely to get for the nights in Vietnam I had spent in less comfortable circumstances, many years ago. There was nothing more I could gain by revisiting the war with my former enemies.
The prose gets a little awkward, the hard-boiled woven with the mildly platitudinous, but it’s still pretty good:
Better to enjoy the evening and in the morning see to more promising pursuits, among which was helping to build a relationship with Vietnam that would serve both our peoples better than our old one had. In that endeavor, I pledged to keep the bullshit on both sides to a minimum. I think the memory of fifty-eight thousand dead Americans and three million Vietnamese dead deserves to be honored with the truth.
Truth and minimum bullshit. Sleep, don’t tell. McCain, again a proxy, enacts with one metonymic good night’s sleep in Ho’s villa the resolution that the feckless hand-wringing of a dozen McNamaras could never achieve.
Good story, but is it true? What we’re dealing with, what we’re always dealing with when we talk about McCain, is myth. One turns to McCain not for fact but for drama and resolution. The redeemed-captive-turned-senator returns intact — nay, stronger and wiser! — to the site of his primal ordeal. Not only does he not suffer from Vietnam syndrome, he pulls a story of redemption from a war that lacked it. Instead of a generational agony, he offers an individual destiny. In the Hanoi Hilton and the villa on Ha Long Bay, McCain was alone yet still performing: for us, for himself, for History.
Destiny! Even his jokes buttressed this mystique. He and his predecessor in the Senate, Barry Goldwater, performed this snappy little routine in the 1980s:
goldwater: If I had been elected president in 1964 you wouldn’t have been a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
mccain: True. I would have been a prisoner of war . . . in China!
The joke lands because it suggests that even in the alternate histories, McCain would have been shot down and captured somewhere or other. That’s just how destiny works.
McCain entered Congress in 1981, as part of the Reagan wave. He was hawkish in all things, though in his first year in the House he disagreed with Reagan about keeping US marines in Lebanon. He voted against Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, but for sanctioning apartheid South Africa in 1986. That same year he was elected to the Senate. Though he took over Goldwater’s seat, he was temperamentally more of a backslapper and a crony (navy liaison to the Senate had also been that kind of job). In 1989, during the savings and loan crisis, McCain was one of the Keating Five, senators who took money from banker Charles Keating when they were supposed to be regulating the industry. Only after that scandal did McCain take up the issue of campaign finance reform, although he continued to deregulate the finance industry and to reap money.
He acquired the sobriquet “maverick” in the mid-’90s, a decade after Tom Cruise played Maverick in Top Gun, another short, dickish, hotheaded navy fighter pilot with unresolved father issues. Maverick signals individualism; it was originally a term for unbranded cattle. But it is the wrong word for McCain. His individualism had more to do with individual atonement — with having been branded, burned, dishonored, but then redeemed. Often these atonements would performatively rehearse his captivity. The Keating Five was that kind of episode: McCain admitted the error and histrionically likened the ordeal to his time in Hanoi. Campaign finance reform was the redemption. The pattern is familiar: a moment of dishonor, a trial, a grimace, an atonement. McCain wanted these performances to be the definitive markers of time. Once you have the scar tissue, there’s no point in discussing the wound.
Or he was called a maverick when he was really just generationally out of step. He was a reliable Republican company man, to be sure, rewarded with predictable millions from the NRA. But even as a Republican he channeled rustier orthodoxies. He took over Goldwater’s Senate seat but not Goldwater’s mantle of ideological conservatism. He invoked Teddy Roosevelt’s rustic-progressive strenuous life while Reagan attacked the welfare state. He thrilled to Roosevelt’s Rough Riders while his party tuned to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. McCain wasn’t really a neocon because he’d never not been a hawk. (He could thus oxymoronically call himself the “original neocon” when boosting the Iraq war.) When challenged from the nativist Republican base, he claimed Reagan as his political idol, but with a protesting-too-much ardor. He even interpolated Reagan back into his tale of captivity, claiming that he and his fellow POWs were psyched to gather snatches of information about the then governor of California. (They heard about Reagan, but not the moon landing?)
McCain is best understood less as a reactionary than as an anachronism. An anachronism does not merely evoke another era; he is literally from another era, like a Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the American Revolution, or a Captain America retrieved from the ice. McCain’s generational otherness allowed other generations to project meaning onto him. He satisfied our nostalgia and our need for narrative. He also capitalized on that need, and being an anachronism shielded him from criticism.
His generational out-of-step-ness was particularly appealing as the 20th century closed. Here at the end of history was a figure who had been present for history yet curiously insulated from its disillusionments. His hair had gone prematurely white in Hanoi, but he’d emerged from the cold war with something like a youthful energy. Profiles from this period routinely describe him “bounding” somewhere or other, and they note that he looked older in person than on television but was more energetic and impatient.
One writerly account stands out, though it is often misunderstood. David Foster Wallace’s profile of McCain for Rolling Stone appeared in April 2000, at the height of McCain’s crossover appeal. This was during the Republican presidential primary and the maiden voyage of McCain’s tour bus, the Straight Talk Express. McCain had become a darling among journalists because he was willing to say the religious right was evil and shoot the shit, freestyle, for nine hours a day.
Was he real? It took Wallace twenty-five thousand words to arrive at an anxious I hope so. McCain’s captivity, at least, was irreducibly real. Wallace fixed on those “five-plus years . . . in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there.” This experience imbued McCain with “something riveting and unSpinnable and true.” That unSpinnable something was “underneath politics” and therefore a foundation for politics. (Wallace has to remind himself that McCain says some “scary and right-wingish” shit when he’s not being “cool” and “nondweeby” and suffering from authentic chronic pain.) McCain’s impossible nonexpedience was everything that politics in the 1990s — “midmorning in America’s hangover from the whole Lewinsky-and-impeachment thing” — wasn’t. Bill Clinton was all triangulation, pseudosincerity, and boomer smarm. He claimed to feel your pain, but McCain’s pain was bracingly truer than any pain you’ve felt, and he chose to endure more of it. Wallace even exaggerated the ordeal: two years in solitary confinement became five years in Wallace’s account, and the torture was ceaseless.
This says more about Wallace than about McCain — or rather, Wallace clung to McCain on behalf of Generation X. “Since you’re reading Rolling Stone,” the essay begins, “the chances are you’re an American between say 18 and 35, which demographically makes you a Young Voter. And no generation of Young Voters has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours.” Wallace himself was 38 at the time, handing down a redemptive wisdom to slightly younger readers: Be cynical, but not too cynical. It was McCain’s peculiar fate to speak for no generation, but now, for a moment, he appealed to one.
If McCain is sincere, can I be sincere? And am I being sincere when I’m aware of how sincere I’m being? The Generation X predicament is a maddening, self-chasing loop. Wallace made it seem like an equation has finally been solved:
If you . . . have come to a point on the Trail where you’ve started fearing your own cynicism almost as much as you fear your own credulity and the salesmen who feed on it, you may find your thoughts returning again and again to a certain dark and box-sized cell in a certain Hilton half a world and three careers away, to the torture and fear and offer of release and a certain Young Voter named McCain’s refusal to violate a Code.
McCain’s solitary suffering speaks across a divide of thirty years. His fellow prisoners are absent; the war itself is strangely absent. The argument depends on McCain’s atavistic singular weirdness: on a character and a courage that awakens the “corny American hope” we might all still have, the hope “lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor.” The wounds that matter to Wallace are emotional and semiotic: “we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to.” McCain’s physical wounds are a saving truth, hence the visceral prose when Wallace writes about them. The reader who has only suffered emotionally or semiotically is brought to McCain’s story and made to imagine a groin wound. (“Imagine: groin wound.”)
McCain lost that primary, but he lost it the right way. That the opposition had been so dirty redounded to his own dignity. Republicans in South Carolina received phone calls that asked, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” (The McCains have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.)
McCain could then, for a moment, become the political maverick he had played on television: a figure who really would vote against his own party. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed in 2002. (The Supreme Court gutted it in 2010.) And a maverick Republican could be at least a tepidly climate-friendly one: McCain and then Democrat Joe Lieberman introduced a market-friendly cap-and-trade bill. McCain was so popular (and the Democratic Party so craven) that in 2004, John Kerry wanted McCain to be his running mate.
But the avenue of McCain’s ambition was not independence from party. It was the war on terror. His push for war began immediately after September 11, 2001, and he styled himself a hard-boiled, war-is-hell hawk rather than a war-will-be-easy hawk. “War is a miserable business,” he wrote that October. “Let’s get on with it.” Air strikes in Afghanistan had already begun; McCain, channeling his father’s disdain for “half measures,” was arguing for full commitment, for not repeating the strategic errors of Vietnam. He pushed early, too, for war in Iraq: “Next up, Baghdad!” he yelled to sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in January 2002, joining the chorus of the war’s neocon boosters, all of whom had avoided the draft in Vietnam.
McCain tied his political fate to the Iraq war: its success would be his success, its failure his failure. It is tempting to see a tragic grandeur there, as if McCain were fated to replay the drama of his own father, calling in vain for more troops and more surges, all the while insisting that “Iraq is not Vietnam.” But even to say it that way is to fall into the trap of McCain’s self-mythologizing. There was tragedy in it, yes, but no grandeur — only error and opportunism.
Self-deception is still deception. As the catastrophe wore on, McCain was in the curious position of saying that the war was just and winnable but also that doomed causes were noble and picturesque. Robert Jordan returned. The memoir containing McCain’s reminiscences about For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 2002, and in subsequent years Robert Jordanism became McCain’s compulsion. Aides would remind him that Jordan is a fictional character. It is a powerful fantasy: to read For Whom the Bell Tolls as an allegory for the war on terror figures America not as a brutal and bumbling empire, but rather as a scrappy foreign fighter in other people’s liberations. McCain could then romanticize doomed causes as a “beautiful fatalism,” as if Iraq and Afghanistan were not Vietnam-like quagmires but modern-day Spains.
One irony of McCain’s fondness for Hemingway is that McCain would have cut a ridiculous figure in every Hemingway novel besides For Whom the Bell Tolls. Robert Jordan is the exception, after all: he dies for a doomed but beautiful cause, but most Hemingway heroes don’t die in a war. They walk out into the rain and live on as hard-boiled men, wounded men. They scorn statesmanly pieties and take up fishing, bullfighting, boxing, or literature. “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain,” says the narrator of A Farewell to Arms, an ambulance driver in World War I. “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” But glory, honor, courage, and hallow were McCain’s favorite words. The second irony is more bitter. The war on terror made McCain less like Robert Jordan and more like the unnamed, ignoble figures who sent Robert Jordan to die.
By 2008, when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate — his only generationally ahead-of-the-curve political move — he had retreated from all that endeared him to non-Republicans. He had called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” in 2000, but now he courted conservative evangelicals and gave a graduation speech at Falwell’s Liberty University. Palin was a young favorite of the religious right, and a “heartthrob” to neoconservative insiders like William Kristol. That she was young and unknown made the pick seem “mavericky” — one of that year’s exciting new words, along with photobomb, fatberg, and the verb unlike — but it was the logical end point of partisan calculation.
Beyond the religious right, the governor of Alaska was a relative unknown. Palin introduced herself at the Republican National Convention as a real American from the small town of Wasilla, population ten thousand. “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity,” she said, citing “a writer.” This was remarkable not only because the writer was Westbrook Pegler — the ’30s-era John Bircher, anti-Semite, and isolationist who lives on in the far-right quotations of our era — but also because John McCain wasn’t grown in a small town or even in a state: he was born in the Panama Canal Zone when the Panama Canal Zone was a US territory. He grew up hearing his father recite Victorian poetry about empires and civilizing missions; now here he stood with a witless reactionary whose folksy-seeming family soon devolved into a reality show. He invoked Kipling; she foreshadowed Duck Dynasty.
The McCain/Palin campaign slogan, “Country first,” handily contained this alliance. On one hand, it recalled McCain’s romance of captivity and redemption, his valor and sacrifice in an unpopular war that was definitely, emphatically not at all like the endless, unpopular war that he still championed. On the other hand it channeled the old fascist slogan “America first.”
Palin remained a sin for which McCain did not atone. In his third and final memoir, The Restless Wave, published this past April, he wrote, looking back to 2008, that he was losing in the polls and therefore needed a “game-changer,” but that he should have chosen Lieberman instead. “I don’t like not doing what I know in my gut I should do.” Well, who does?
That 2008 election is remarkable for being the only one in the past thirty years not to feature a boomer candidate. (Dismal fact: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all born in the summer of 1946.) McCain was older than the boomers, and a hallowed war hero; Obama was younger, too young to have faced the military draft or dodged it. This meant that the Vietnam War was, for the first time in a generation, not at issue in a presidential election. Without guilt or shame, Obama could praise McCain’s wartime heroism while consigning him to grandfatherly obsolescence.
Rarely noted, though, is a deeper consonance between McCain and Obama. Nonboomers both, they were also both cosmopolitans, born on the margins or former margins of an American empire. McCain moved through the military establishment from the frontier to the center: from Panama to the Naval Academy to Hanoi to Arizona to Washington. Obama’s route was also circuitous: from Hawaii to Indonesia and back, and then through the academic establishment, from Occidental College in LA to Columbia and Harvard Law; and then from Chicago’s South Side to Washington. Both wrote compelling family memoirs in the 1990s. McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Obama’s Dreams from My Father stand as twin codas to the “American Century.” McCain came to understand the faith of his ever-present fathers while in captivity in Vietnam. Obama came to understand his ever-absent father on a personal pilgrimage to Kenya.
McCain was cosmopolitan the way Rudyard Kipling, born in India, was cosmopolitan, and he channeled that antique sense of imperial mission. In a 2007 statement of foreign policy for Foreign Affairs, he wrote that “our unique form of leadership — the antithesis of empire — gives us moral credibility, which is more powerful than any show of arms.” He meant the antithesis of European-style empires, but “antithesis of empire” is one of those phrases that really suggests its opposite, and not only because McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone. He also wrote paeans to Alfred Thayer Mahan (the father of the modern navy), Billy Mitchell (father of the air force), and Theodore Roosevelt.
Though he would not put it in these terms, empire was McCain’s source of order, anecdote, poetry, and noble death. The usual foreign-policy labels — hawk, neocon, interventionist — don’t quite capture that view of the world. We need a label that befits an anachronism, something like pre-postcolonial. His view of the world did not need new epistemologies to comprehend the subjectivities of colonized peoples; he did not wonder whether the subaltern can speak.
Obama, by contrast, stirred a hope that the world was already postethnic, postracial. His more paranoid critics imagined that he was born elsewhere, or that he inherited his father’s anticolonial politics. But Obama’s rhetorical genius lay in absorbing his cosmopolitan sensibility into a liberal variant of American exceptionalism: to narrate a world in which the wounds of race and empire had somehow already been healed. Where McCain was pre-postcolonial, Obama was post-postcolonial.
In every Obama story, something is transcended; in every McCain story, something is preserved.Tweet
Both were fictions. Obama did not end the war on terror, though he spoke as if he did. McCain, for his part, clung to the story of Robert Jordan with ever more devotion. His key gesture in the Obama years was the international trip: the senator as foreign fighter. “They are my heroes,” he said of the anti-Gaddafi forces he visited in Libya in 2011. He made a surprise trip to Syria in 2013 and posed necktie-less for photographs with armed leaders of the Free Syrian Army. The politician-as-Hemingway-hero needs to be there, whether there is Syria or Libya or Baghdad.
Arizona, the state he ostensibly represented, meanwhile thrust monstrous figures into the national arena. McCain did not hide his contempt for Phoenix sheriff Joe Arpaio. But in 2010 he voted against the DREAM Act, earlier versions of which he’d sponsored, and he supported Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, a repressive law that required police to ask people for immigration documents during stops, detentions, and arrests. In a campaign ad from that year, when McCain faced a primary challenge from the right, he walks beside a sheriff who warns of the “illegals” who come through Arizona. “Complete the danged fence,” McCain says. “It’ll work this time,” the sheriff replies. “Senator — you’re one of us.”
The end of the American Century feels like the end of something else: a novel, maybe, that we thought would end differently. Trump’s victory struck many people as implausible, but plausibility is as much a measure of narrative as a measure of politics. What kind of story do you think is being told? Where are we along its narrative arc? What is believable in the plot and what is beyond the pale of plausibility? Which reversals or twists would be in keeping with the genre and which would break the genre’s rules? Does the story have a moral?
Obama and McCain were the American Century’s last literary statesmen, and they presided over its decline. Both catered to the desire to see America as a text, as something legible, and both assumed its futurity. Obama was the narrator whose every speech added a paragraph to the American story, moving all of us, the expansive we of “Yes we can,” ever nearer a promised land. McCain was not a narrator but a character — a hero rather than an everyman, but no less literary for being heroic. He summoned Hemingway’s foreign fighter above all, but also older archetypes: the captivity narrative of the 17th and 18th centuries, the imperial adventures of the 19th. His heroism was always twice-told, never not an old book. In every Obama story, something is transcended; in every McCain story, something is preserved.
Hence the constant hallowing. McCain’s memoirs are peppered with tributes to uncommon men he admired and emulated — Ted Williams, Mo Udall, Emiliano Zapata as played by Marlon Brando — as well as figures from the imperial past, Great Men and the occasional woman who did things the right way. Fictional characters, too. McCain believed firmly in an afterlife of that sort: one measures the health of a body politic by how well or poorly the honorable dead are honored. Pantheons need custodians, especially when you want to be in that pantheon. In that sense, McCain had been planning his funeral since he was 12 years old.
McCain’s hallowed literary archetypes … only matter if the rest of the world matters, or if the margins matter, or if you can read.Tweet
These narrative postures live on in the Trump era, but they feel like obsolete rituals. Obama still shares on Facebook an annual list of books that inspired him, as if all will be well and another shelf can be added to the bookcase. McCain, on the occasion of his last memoir, likewise hallowed his literary favorites in an interview with the New York Times, and of course they were books from an earlier age. He reminisced about his childhood readings of Sir Walter Scott, Treasure Island, Mark Twain. He liked W. Somerset Maugham’s “cosmopolitan sensibility, his feel for the personal and social dramas provoked by clashing cultures.” He recommended classics of military history and the biographies of Great Men. The one book the President should read, he said, is Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. (Isn’t that six books? “If he doesn’t have time to read all six volumes, he could make do with the one-volume edition published in 1954.”)
Couldn’t they see the wreck? Maybe not. Trump doesn’t fit. He is too narrow and inarticulate to be one of the diverse points of view that Obama would embroider into the American story. The paranoia of birtherism is unassimilable. In a McCain plot, Trump would most resemble the torturer. Torture unmakes the world, as Elaine Scarry argues in The Body in Pain. It obliterates language and narrative. Trump offers no future to achieve, nor a future from which to hallow our heroes. There is only the excruciating present of someone else’s joyless real-time narcissism.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of McCain in 2015. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Deflating the sacred mystique of McCain’s captivity, and the captivity tale as a genre, is fully consistent with the illiterate nationalist profanity that Trump embodies. He is the least cosmopolitan rich man of all time. McCain’s hallowed literary archetypes — the captive’s redemption, the imperial picaro’s adventures, the foreign fighter’s sacrifice — only matter if the rest of the world matters, or if the margins matter, or if you can read.
McCain regained some of his old romantic stature during the Trump presidency, and not only because of his approaching death. It was also because McCain has been his era’s foremost advocate for the Great Man theory of history. It’s quaint, both boyish and grandfatherly, to believe that a pivotal figure’s moral fiber determines the course of human events. Such theories are out of fashion among professional historians, but they are very much in fashion, in an unacknowledged way, in daily political life. The recurring liberal fantasy that some or another Great Man or Woman will come to the rescue is a sign of how terribly and perversely true that theory of history has become.
In July 2017, having been diagnosed with brain cancer after undergoing a craniotomy, McCain flew back to Washington with a sharp black line of stitches over his left eyebrow and the fate of the Affordable Care Act in his hands. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet!” he admonished his fellow senators in a much-lauded speech. “To hell with them!” He spoke of greatness. The Senate’s deliberations “haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.” Lately? Then he delivered a tribute to the Senate’s “arcane rules and customs,” the “seemingly eccentric practices that slow our proceedings and insist on our cooperation.” The maverick was most appealing, paradoxically, when he issued a hoary ode to noble traditions, to the faith of his fathers, to the Senate, to the way it used to be — as if it ever was what it used be.
Refusing to tip his vote in advance, elevating the suspense to a level any writer would envy, he gave the dramatic thumbs-down on the Senate floor. The Republican bill was dead; the maverick lived on. Never mind that his was not a defense of Obama-care, but simply a call to dismantle Obamacare via the Senate’s “regular order.” Such was the McCain mystique that his own recent medical needs channeled pathos rather than hypocrisy. Americans celebrated as though the center had held.
But it has been a season of such pivotal figures, one after the other. McCain was one more figure by the thread of whose personality the American future seemed to hang. Sally Yates, James Comey, Robert Mueller, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ours is an era of heroic politics, or at least we make the mistake of thinking of it as such. Liberals especially have painted themselves into that corner, when in fact the real lesson of this upside-down Great Man–ism should be that a heroic politics is a broken politics.
If Great Men are obsolete among historians, so too is the asking of what if questions. Counterfactual histories leave no archive, yet we’ve been saturated with counterfactuals since Trump’s election. If onlys abound, frantic and lamenting, searching for that one variable that might have changed the course. These are unsatisfying because political disasters have a thousand causes. Other counterfactuals are valuable provocations. A good counterfactual can remind us that our fates are not sealed. “Bernie would’ve won” is such a provocation: not necessarily an I-told-you-so, but a shorthand about the recent past that suggests an actual political future. A subjunctive politics can be a hopeful politics.
No wonder we return to McCain: he was already living in an alternate history, one that was always more romantic and picturesque than ours. It was a nice alternate history to visit. As escapisms go, McCain’s wasn’t the worst. It had a tidy moral, like a bedtime story. Love your country, because John McCain loved your country more than you do. It also had a narrative structure: nostalgia, but with one eye trained on eulogies of the future. McCain died as he lived, preserved in the amber of the American Century. An anachronism hints that the time we’re trapped in could have gone another way. It’s pretty to think so.