John McCain and the American Century Struggle to Survive

The ailing senator is the last of a generation of Republicans who promoted American global leadership.

Independence Day brings out this country’s most patriotic expressions, from marching flag-wavers to parades of fez-wearing Shriners in mini-cars. This year, America celebrates its 242nd birthday, a year when the country actively redefines its concept of greatness.

America’s role in the world is rapidly changing, going from being the world’s policeman to loutish neighborhood beat cop. No one exemplifies the post-WWII generation of public servants who understood and promoted American global leadership than the now terminally ill U.S. Senator John McCain.

He would be the first to admit that he is an imperfect man, but the last to believe that America’s role is obsolete, immoral, or defined strictly by economic interests and presidential whim. He has sacrificed his time and his body to fight against the shrill and the small-minded who argue that America’s sins and historic mistakes are anywhere near morally equivalent to the Mao massacresStalin scourge, or Hitler holocaust.

Fighting Communism was his generation’s cause and he believed he was on the front lines in Vietnam to make the world safe and secure from ideological empires that led to totalitarianism and mass murder around the world.

He screwed up when his time came to lead his party and promote his policies. He prevaricated, he postured, he Palin-ed. The personal and professional trade-offs he felt he had to make to turn an anti-maverick GOP into a party that would support a moderate McCain cost him his pride and tarnished his brand. McCain got spanked at the polls by America’s first African-American president.

We all figure out how to personally reconcile our mistakes and move on, but McCain still dwells on his public life’s greatest regret—picking Sarah Palin and accelerating the movement towards a populist politics that opened the Oval Office door for Donald J. Trump, historic revisionism, and America’s dramatic retreat from friends, allies, and the global stage. Despite McCain’s years of service and sacrifice, this one fact will remain a prominent feature of his reputation and remembrances.

McCain lost a presidential election and never got the chance to run foreign policy from the White House. Instead, he remained in the august and deliberative Senate where he could advise and consent, but not do much more than taunt and obstruct Trump’s inadvisable plans and often unfathomable instincts.

Reckoning a life in politics requires a focus not only on failings. The humane and patriotic contrasts between Senator McCain and the president are notable. McCain opposes Trump’s evolving world disorder and disdains the president’s privileging of autocratic leaders. Policy and style stand in stark contrast between the two men. Here are a few highlights:

  • Children? McCain and his wife, Cindy, adopted into their family a little girl from an orphanage in Bangladesh run by Mother Teresa.
  • Putin & Moscow? McCain saved some of his most virulent criticism for the Russian autocratic leader and argued in favor of helping protect persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the region. His unvarnished and direct style came across clearly when he wrote that “Vladimir Putin is an evil man.”
  • Military affairs? He is a war hero and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
  • Leadership? By example, both as a warrior or prisoner in Vietnam, he led and took that leadership to the Senate floor as, for example, he fought his party leadership to cast thedeciding voteon healthcare.

The list goes on but the work is never ending. What does seem to be fading, however, is the role and understanding of patriotic honor in this era. Honor is a worthy goal, though it is losing favor. Honor prefers to show, not tell. His reticence about his military or political achievements speaks volumes.

George H.W. Bush and John McCain are cut from the same cloth. Both U.S. Navy war pilots, they fought for America in the air and on the seas, rose to political prominence, and saw the world with clear vision and a long view. In their estimation, America is great because America is good. Both men are now in their twilight.

McCain always felt the honorable pull and deep need to be near the men and women who fight our fights and defend our freedoms. Since 2003 and up until his brain cancer diagnosis, John McCain spent every Independence Day with American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Parts of these remote desert nations might, topographically, remind him of his adopted Arizona, a state he has represented as a congressman or senator since 1982.

Arizona is landlocked but preparing for a sea change. Jeff Flake is dropping out of the Senate and John McCain is writing his last chapter. With them will disappear another sign of comity and civility.

Meghan McCain will be around a lot longer to remind us of her father’s sacrifice and our country’s debt to him. She’ll also be around to remind President Trump that harsh rhetoric, humiliation, and disdain both for true patriots and America’s partners alone will not revive the American Century, but can singularly work to divide our nation, destroy our reputation, and dissipate our global leadership. She, for one, is “never going to forgive” Donald Trump for his disrespectful attacks on her father. Neither should the rest of us if his spirit and our nation are to endure.

This piece was originally published by McClatchy.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.