My Old Friend, John McCain

You’re all probably quite familiar with and equally fatigued by stories about how the U.S. Senate used to be a more cordial place where there were strong friendships across the aisle, but Vietnam veterans John Kerry and John McCain have had a long-lasting and meaningful relationship. You may not remember how white-hot the POW-MIA issue was in the late-1980’s and early-1990’s, but more than budget deficits or trade agreements with Mexico, it was what really animated H. Ross Perot’s politics. Working together, Kerry and McCain were able to keep the crazies at bay and help normalize relations with Vietnam.

But no one is immune from John McCain’s late-life turn to unrelenting bloodthirst and overall nastiness, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kerry is feeling the brunt of it, too.

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Back in 2013, John McCain’s insatiable desire to see the world engulfed in human carnage had grown so disturbing that Mother Jones decided to methodically detail every country McCain had recommended attacking. The list, which has since grown, included: Nigeria, Kosovo, Bosnia (against the Serbs), Afghanistan, Iraq (including the first Gulf War, three separate times), Syria, Iran, Mali, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, Russia (more than once), and China. Type “McCain recommends military action” into Bing, and you get more than three-quarters of a million hits, including in Ukraine.

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For many war hawks, including Hillary Clinton and, yes, John Kerry, the disaster in Iraq had a chastening effect. But not for John McCain, who plainly thinks that everything would have gone swimmingly there if we had just stayed longer and tried harder. He wakes up every day looking for some new place on the global map to drop American bombs and commit American troops. This long ago went far beyond self-parody into something more resembling pure evil, or perhaps simple insanity.

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This is why he is so impatient with our Secretary of State, John Kerry. And let’s not pretend that John Kerry is some peacenik.

McCain’s bashing is ironic, Obama officials say, given that Kerry could be something of an ally behind enemy lines for the Republican. McCain is a hawk who complains that Obama hasn’t used American power more boldly. Kerry is among the more hawkish members of Obama’s team: He has pressed for arming Ukraine’s military, sending more aid to Syria’s moderate rebels, and was an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s short-lived September 2013 plan for air strikes against Syrian forces.

Yet, McCain has nothing positive to say about his would-be ally:

Lately, McCain has sounded less like a friend than a foe. In recent months he has branded Kerry a “human wrecking ball,” urged him to “recognize reality,” called him “delusional” and said he has “accomplished nothing except mileage as secretary of state.” Last month, for good measure, he suggested that he considers Iran’s Supreme Leader a more believable source on the nuclear talks than Kerry.

For his part, Kerry is trying to take the high road, but it isn’t all that easy:

People close to both men insist their friendship is durable enough to withstand McCain’s barrage of criticism, and Kerry confidantes say the secretary of state shrugs off his antagonist’s potshots. Kerry has invited McCain to breakfast at the State Department, and occasionally speaks to him by phone.

But the bond has clearly frayed of late. One person who recently saw them together described their rapport as more cordial than brotherly.

“This has always been a volcanic marriage of two strong willed, proud guys who deeply respect each other, but sometimes drive each other absolutely crazy. It’s a real friendship, unlike so many of the cliched Washington variety,” says one close Kerry associate.

“But this phase has been jarring. Kerry has been surprised by McCain’s public tirades. It’s crossed some lines that Kerry himself is always careful never to cross,” the associate added.

My advice for Kerry is not to take this personally.

Take a look at the press. They used to adore John McCain. I’ve never seen a politician treated with more deference and respect and almost awe by the media than John McCain in the 1999-2000 time frame. Even in 2008, the effect had not totally worn off.

But, by 2014, even Dana Milbank wanted to know if John McCain had called for war so many times that no one took notice of it anymore.

And that doesn’t even get into the disillusionment entailed in watching John McCain pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

So, John Kerry isn’t alone. There are a lot of people who have had to rethink their relationship with John McCain, including some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. “He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

So, maybe it’s sad and a little jarring to realize that your old friend is not the same man he once was, or maybe it’s hard to realize that you’d misjudged him all along, but remember, John McCain was a POW, so you can’t criticize him.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.