New York Times (Opinion):
By Evan Thomas
October 22, 2016
On Oct. 26, 1967, John McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over North Vietnam. Over the next five and a half years, Captain McCain was tortured by North Vietnamese guards seeking to force him to confess his “air piracy”; twice, he tried to commit suicide rather than give in. As a stunt intended to embarrass his father — Adm. John McCain, commander of American forces in the Pacific — his captors at the Hanoi Hilton offered to free the younger McCain. Rather than desert his mates, he refused.
Nearly 50 years later, Mr. McCain, during what will most likely be his last run for the Senate, faces another reproach to his core values, this time in the unlikely form of his party’s presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.
Like his party, Mr. McCain has been caught between his self-interest and his principles, between his instinct to survive and his instinct to sacrifice for the greater good. How the senator deals with an increasingly toxic Trump campaign will do much to determine how he’s remembered — and may well signal how the Republican Party goes about trying to pick up the pieces.
Mr. McCain was among Mr. Trump’s earliest targets. In July 2015, Mr. Trump declared that Mr. McCain, who had chided him for vowing to deport all illegal immigrants, “was not a war hero,” then amended his remarks to absurdly state: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, O.K.?” Mr. McCain, whose temper is well known, might have lashed back, but he mostly simmered.
Later, he chastised Mr. Trump for cozying up to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and for besmirching the Gold Star family of an Army captain, Humayun Khan. After Mitt Romney excoriated Mr. Trump as unqualified for office, Mr. McCain seconded his remarks from the Senate floor. Mr. McCain even declined to attend the Republican National Convention, in an obvious snub to his party’s nominee.
At the same time, in May he endorsed Mr. Trump for president. “I support the Republican Party, and the Republicans have chosen the nominee for the party,” he said. At the time, Mr. McCain was locked in a primary fight against a right-wing opponent who was popular among Trump supporters, and Mr. Trump’s subsequent endorsement of Mr. McCain helped him survive the challenge.
More recently, Mr. McCain has soured on Mr. Trump; the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, he withdrew his endorsement. “I have daughters, I have friends,” he explained. After the debate Wednesday night, he gave Mr. Trump — and all of us — a needed civics lesson by reminding him that graciously accepting the voters’ choice in a presidential race is “the American way.” Still, Mr. McCain seems to feel a need to tread lightly around Mr. Trump.
“He is in the middle of a re-election race,” explains an aide, “and it’s a fairly competitive one.” (“Competitive” is relative; he leads his Democratic opponent, Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, by double digits in voter surveys.) Still, by renouncing Mr. Trump, he runs the risk of alienating Trump voters without necessarily winning over enough Democrats to cover the loss — especially if Hillary Clinton, as seems likely, carries Arizona.
Mr. McCain’s modulation is not just political; it’s also personal. His rock-ribbed public image contrasts with a history of struggling with personal demons. “I’m a man of many failings,” he once told me. “I make no bones about it. That’s why I’m such a believer in redemption. I’ve done many, many wrong things in my life. The key is to try to improve.”
Mr. McCain once told a Navy psychiatrist that, as a teenager, he was a “rebel without a cause.” One of his high school nicknames was “McNasty.” Even today, some congressional colleagues call him “Senator Hothead”; more than a few have received letters of apology from Mr. McCain after being told off by him, sometimes loudly and profanely.
That struggle between niceness and harshness was evident during Mr. McCain’s 2008 run for president. That year, groups that were nominally independent from the Republican Party bought advertisements meant to (however subtly) stir a racist backlash against Barack Obama. Mr. McCain might have stood back and let them do his dirty work; instead he quietly, firmly let it be known he and his campaign wanted no such underhanded tactics. When a woman at a rally attacked Mr. Obama as an “Arab,” Mr. McCain responded, “No, ma’am, no, ma’am, he’s a decent, family-man citizen.”
This was the same McCain who, as he anxiously watched a nascent Tea Party movement take root in his party, chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. In the process, he ended up sabotaging his own campaign; worse, Ms. Palin’s know-nothing rants helped set the stage for Mr. Trump. (Does Mr. McCain regret his choice? “McCain looks forward, not back,” a friend of his told me.)
Mr. McCain has had a similarly complicated record in the Senate. He has shown an ability to reach across the aisle, working with Senator Edward Kennedy on the last serious congressional attempt at immigration reform. He even cooperated from time to time with Senator Hillary Clinton (and in 2004, on a trip to Estonia, engaged her in a vodka-drinking contest). But he can be extremely, immoderately partisan. Just last week, he blurted on talk radio that if Mrs. Clinton is elected, he will try to block any Supreme Court nominee she sends to Congress. (A spokesman later tried to walk back this reckless vow.)
And yet, as a defeated presidential candidate in 2008, he showed grace and respect for democracy. “This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life,” he said on election night, “and my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years.”
On his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, Captain McCain heard the beep signaling that an antiaircraft missile had locked on to his plane. He could have “jinked” — aborted the mission — to avoid the missile, but out of stubborn bravery, he flew straight on. He had just toggled the bomb-release switch when the enemy missile blew off the right wing of his plane.
With just weeks left in the campaign, Mr. McCain has the opportunity to to directly challenge Mr. Trump and use his still-lofty position in the Republican firmament to begin to rebuild his party. Or he might decide to play it safe, racking up a higher vote count and saving his fire for another day.
Mr. McCain is a survivor as well as a hero. Only he knows the true measure of his heart.
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