A balanced analysis and assessment of John McCain’s life diminishes his reputation as a war hero and political independent of courage and integrity. Much of his reputation depends on a carefully crafted biographical narrative which discounts or disregards details revealing a man troubled by ambiguous responses to authority. An account of his life must address his inability to resolve life-long tensions arising in his responses to his family’s expectations that he would repeat his paternal grandfather’s and his father’s success in their position and prestige as four-star admirals. For McCain rebelled against these expectations but exploited the privileges accruing from his pedigree.
This account explains his lack of success as a military officer and an elected official—with no record of accomplishment in the Navy or Congress. He has never been a leader; instead, he has been a hellraiser, a jet jockey, a POW, a “maverick,” and, more recently, a frequent guest on television talk shows. Even if McCain were the hero he is reputed to be, none of these roles is a leadership role.
As a child, McCain reacted to authority with temper tantrums; as a youth and as an adult, he has reacted to authority, resistance, or frustration with anger, rebellion, or passive aggression. At prep school, he was known for his quick anger and fast fists. He complied with his father’s insistence on a Navy career, graduated from the Naval Academy, and responded with off-beat choices, disobedient behavior, and a mediocre overall record. He preferred literature and history to science and mathematics but was a poor student who earned poor grades. He was a prankster, partier, and heavy drinker who loved escapades and adventure, and received hundreds of demerits; his moniker was “John Wayne McCain.” At graduation, his class ranking put him near the bottom of his class, 894th out of 899, to be precise.
As befitted his tendency to thrill-seeking and risk-taking, McCain chose a career as a jet pilot, but his performance as an aviator was as mediocre as it had been as a student. Although some debate the details of his flight record, no one questions that his five crashes involved human error or mechanical failure—a number not approached by, because not tolerated in, pilots without influential connections (his father crashed five planes as well and also received a pass because of his father). Despite a problematic flight record, he secured a prestigious position as a flight instructor, his only stateside military assignment. Though disobedient and reckless in the military, he accepted family influence to prevent his grounding and keep him flying.
His combat record in Vietnam was equally undistinguished. Shot down, McCain was captured; interrogated, he disclosed classified information; later, tortured, he signed confessions; later still, he was brutally tortured when he refused early release. However, his experience and his responses to it were little different from those of many others of his rank, duty assignment, and situation. Along with other POWs in Hanoi Hilton, McCain resisted his captors as much as he could and survived captivity and torture. Like others who adhered to the rule that later prisoners forego release until earlier prisoners had been released, McCain refused his captors’ offer of out-of-turn release. However, he was subjected to unusually severe punishment because his captors were angry at his refusal because they wanted to exploit his identity for propaganda purposes: a soldier accepting favorable treatment because of his family connections. For the first and perhaps only time, McCain was punished for them. He had no choice; if he had accepted this offer, he would have broken the rule, betrayed his fellow POWs, and accepted a favor reflecting his father’s rank as admiral—not what most people would do. Still, McCain behaved honorably, but his fellow prisoners behaved similarly and equally honorably.
Some claim that McCain was too easily compliant with his captors because, within days of capture and under the duress only of his injuries, he provided operational intelligence in return for medical attention. (Oddly, though he knows that he later made false confessions under torture, he supported torture by the CIA.) These rumors about “Songbird” McCain seem unduly harsh, but they linger, neither refuted nor confirmed, because, rather suspiciously, McCain, as a Senator, has ensured that the Department of Defense permanently sealed his military record.
Although McCain’s prison experience was little different from that of other POWs, some of whom spent more years in prison, his reception upon release and return to America was different from theirs. He was no more or less a hero than many others, yet, as the grandson and son of four-star admirals, McCain alone received a hero’s welcome and has accepted without reservation or modesty the acclaim and adulation of a hero.
However, the Navy did not offer him a path to higher rank. Given his poor academic performance at the Naval Academy, his mediocre performance as an aviator, and his years in captivity, he lost has chance to attain to flag rank as an admiral. After some liaison work to Congress, McCain retired as a captain from the Navy to pursue a political career in Arizona. Having found his wife, a former beauty, much changed by injury, he began an adulterous relationship with another, much younger beauty, divorced his wife, married his lover, and entered into a rich, powerful Arizona family. He accepted their and their friends’ support in winning elective office. With this support and his reputation as a war hero, he won office, first as a representative, then as a senator.
Although he exploited his imprisonment to give him an attractive story of personal heroism, his military experience was narrow in range and gave him little knowledge of, and insight into, the military and foreign affairs which he tacitly claims for himself or which others casually impute to him. Moreover, the torments of long confinement appear to have distorted his judgment and disturbed his stability.
Since the beginning of his political career, McCain has associated with corporate moguls or lobbyists; his part in the “Keating Five” revealed, not an aberration, but an affinity. Insulated and isolated by this small circle of support, McCain developed few links to Arizona citizens or politicians and had little experience with the give-and-take of negotiations. He has worked well with members of both parties when they agree with him on issues and legislation, but not when they do not. He bears grudges. His temper is famous inside Washington—Congressional peers and staff privately refer to him as “Senator McNasty”—and so worrying that, long before his presidential campaign, even fellow Republican Senators like Pete Domenici expressed fears about its dangers if empowered by executive position.
McCain is an intelligent, but an intellectually lazy, man, who maintains an abiding ignorance unremedied by study. Despite his long years of imprisonment and his many years in Congress on important foreign affairs committees, McCain has made little effort to educate himself on important issues. In discussing matters of foreign policy, he makes frequent mistakes of fact. Despite his many votes on budgets, regulations, and financial policies, McCain admits knowing little about economics. He remains unable to operate a computer and to access the Internet, and thus shows that he does not understand many modern technologies which influence government, military, business, and educational activities. He seems to be a man whose blank mind endorses blank checks.
Although McCain made a reputation for himself as a straight-talker, his recent record is one of retreat on issues, reversal of positions, and revision of past views. His changes of position have been attempts to curry favor with the conservative Republicans who dominate Arizona politics out of fear of defeat from rivals farther to the right on many issues. He has altered positions on tax cuts, energy policy, environmental protection, affirmative action, immigration, free trade, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These dramatic changes in position in the face of challenge do not suggest the courage of convictions which his claim to resisting as best he could his Vietnamese captors suggests.
The sum of his character is a man whose feelings guide his thinking, not vice versa. Evident since he lost his bid for the presidency in 2008, McCain has shown bitterness in defeat. Invited by Obama to work with him after the election, McCain has spurned such overtures, smeared Obama, and obstructed many of Obama’s legislative proposals and appointments. This behavior does not suggest a man focusing his energies on serving his country more than settling the scores of a sore loser.
McCain is a tragic tale of a person raised to meet expectations beyond his ability and to have aspirations beyond his reach. Parental pressures inculcated resentment of, anger at, and rebellion against, authority. Defeated ambitions for success on his terms intensified these feelings and increased his attacks on others. As a result, the president and his peers care less and less about him or his views, and his frequent expressions of vitriol tarnish his integrity and diminish his respect. Sooner or later, McCain will realize that he betrayed what was best in him and what he professed to serve.