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The Complex Legacy of Senator John McCain

On August 25, the United States lost one of its most renowned and influential political figures, Republican Senator John McCain. McCain had built up a widespread reputation as a “maverick”, a reputation bolstered by several high-profile dissents from and criticisms of President Donald Trump. However, McCain’s legacy as a lawmaker proves upon closer inspection to be far more complex than the “maverick” tropre implies.

Despite his frequent denunciations of Trump and his break from the party line on issues such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, McCain was a significantly conservative legislator. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime rating of 80.91, implying a consistent conservative voting record. Despite his criticism of the Trump Administration, according to opinion poll analysis website FiveThirtyEight McCain voted in line with Trump’s position 83 percent of the time. He was firmly anti-abortion and a foreign policy hawk.

However, while McCain may have held deeply conservative views on most issues, he was unafraid to reject the Republican Party line when it came into conflict with his beliefs, contributing to his reputation as being independently-minded. His urging of the senate to reject the nomination of Gina Haspel to direct the CIA —founded on her history with the use of torture— serves as a perfect example. His recurrent condemnation of nationalism, may be his most significant dissent, as it demonstrates a rift between him and his party. His criticism of what he called “some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems” was a full denouncement of the anti-immigration, isolationist element of the Republican Party of which Donald Trump, in many ways McCain’s intraparty foil, is a culmination.

Another key part of McCain’s legacy is his ability to admit when he felt he had made a mistake. An example is his admission that he was dishonest about his stance on the Confederate flag because he feared losing votes in the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000. He also recently admitted that he felt he had made a mistake in choosing Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate over Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. There is a tendency in the media after the deaths of public figures to portray them in the best possible light, but perhaps it would be truer to McCain to show him for what he was by his own account: a flawed human being.

Altogether, McCain’s record as a politician, although it can seem contradictory at times, seems to be linked by a common thread of loyalty to his idea of the United States. He consistently placed his own judgement on what was best for the country before the Republican agenda when the two came into conflict, despite it earning him rebukes from members of his party. He admitted when he felt had failed the public despite whatever consequences it might have for his political career. Occurrences such as his defense of the character of his 2008 presidential opponent, Barack Obama, when a rally attendee said that she feared him because he was an “Arab”, show that he prioritized American unity over his chance at power.

This history of prioritizing a higher loyalty than himself extends back before his political career to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He refused to be released unless his fellow prisoners were released as well, leading his captors to increase his torture.

John McCain spoke at length of how much he admired the United States in his farewell letter, and his ultimate legacy is one of striving, even when he saw that he had stumbled, to adhere to his beliefs of how he could serve the country.

Image Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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