Sunday, September 02, 2018

Farewell, John McCain

Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings? How we love the friends who have just left us? How we admire those of our teachers who have ceased to speak, their mouths filled with earth! Then the expression of admiration springs forth naturally, that admiration they were perhaps expecting from us all their lives. But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation.” – Albert Camus

I wrote the following paragraph in December, 2006, thinking about the then upcoming 2008 presidential nomination process, trying to predict who might have a chance in the nomination process. At the time, Rudy Giuliani was doing really well in the polls before he self-destructed (and as far as I am concerned, never completely recovered). After I wrote it, McCain bottomed out, was virtually out of the race, but held on and rallied to win it. And I was glad. I’m correcting a couple of typos, which I left in the original, before posting this, because, frankly, they are embarrassing. And who’s going to complain if I do? Without some compulsion to be honest about it, who would know? Ironically, I frequently edit other people’s work for profit and friendship, but somehow still can’t find the strength to edit my own posts before I hit publish, even if I spent days writing it. I’m just babbling, as usual. Here’s the bit on McCain:

“John McCain. Long time Arizona Senator. I am a little biased here. He has been my personal favorite since the late 90s. McCain is a genuine war hero. In the modern world, you often just need to sign up or show up for hero status, but McCain survived years of POW torture, and refused to go home ahead of others who were there before him, which he could have due to his privileged position as an admiral’s son. Sounds pretty heroic to me. I like McCain for his moderation, his willingness to buck his own party, his willingness to admit mistakes. He is a formidable speaker, strong on defense, and appears to me, at least, to put country first. Many conservatives dislike him for the same reasons I like him. Naturally, I don’t like everything he does either. Some of his supposedly benevolent positions like the campaign reform law he sponsored and his attempts to censor certain commercial activities in order to protect children, cross over first amendment boundaries in my opinion. I watched a hearing where he grilled now convicted Enron executive, Jeffrey Skilling, and showed a lack of understanding of basic economics. However, most of his comrades seemed equally clueless. He has already disappointed me by wisely asking the forgiveness of the same religious groups he castigated in 2000 by going to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and speaking there. Still, he knows what he needs to do to win. I give him THE BEST CHANCE TO WIN THE REPUBLICAN NOMINATION DESPITE GIULIANI'S GENERAL POPULARITY.”

Reading it again, I’m actually surprised to see that I feel pretty much the same way today as I did in 2006. I don’t know that I would change anything substantive in it. When he died he was still my favorite politician. I think my future biographer will have little trouble establishing that as I just did a word search for “McCain” on my blog and that found I’ve mentioned him in 99 posts since I started in September, 2006!!!  I’ve only posted 497 times total. That means I mentioned him in about 1 out of every 5 posts. That probably means I mentioned him in almost every political post I’ve written. Glad I didn’t know that. And, what I wrote, seems to be generally the same stuff that others say about him all the time, both the good and bad of it. So much for originality on my part.

When McCain lost his bid for the presidency, I was, not surprisingly, disappointed, although he did such a bad job campaigning that at the time he lost, it was already a foregone conclusion to everyone but those for whom it is an article of faith to be certain their side will win until they don’t. I was living in Virginia at the time and the local city newspaper published an op-ed I wrote about it. It doesn’t look to me that I ever posted it here, and it’s definitely too late now. If I recall, my main view was that the reasons he lost did not include his choice for VP (although, is there anyone left who doesn’t think that was a bad choice outside of her family?), but rather Bush fatigue, the economic collapse during another Republican’s term and, did I say this – a really bad campaign?

My feelings at his recent death were more complicated. First, we had quite a while to deal with it since he first announced his brain cancer.  So, hardly a shock. Second, I am in a period where I can barely stomach to watch anything political, though I expect that will change next year when people start jockeying for position for 2020. I also have a strange tendency to get irritated when the press makes a big deal out of a politician dying. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a good reason, but I can’t think of it. I just do.

But, most of all, I wasn’t planning on watching because I didn’t want to see the hypocrisy of his fellow pols, most of whom I didn’t respect the way I did McCain, praise him, even treat him as a savior, when all they did during their careers were shoot him down unless they thought he’d vote the way they’d like. He was not, for all of his vaunted moderation, a popular man in many ways. Leave aside his famous explosive temper and perhaps some arrogance in private that I’d expect a world famous person like him might have (people who aren’t even famous on their block are arrogant, so why not him?), politicians, like most people, do not like moderates much. Yes, they hate their opposition, but I think they hate the moderate more (and McCain was largely conservative his whole career – just more moderate than most). The reason is, the moderate ruins the game, that is, that either a Democrat or Republican position, or a conservative or liberal one, is all there is. And one side has to win (coupled with the fantasy that next time everyone will see reason and it will be them).

Democrats sometimes loved him prior to his run for president. That’s because he’d sometimes take their side and more often, work with them on something he saw as important. Republicans, not surprisingly, hated him for that. After all, he took their money and ran as a Republican. There’s nothing politicians hate more than apostates. And the love from Democrats ended when he had the temerity to oppose their choice. Then he became a bad guy. I get to quote Mark Twain here at length. I actually love this and handcopied pages of the two speeches out of a book. Because I’m grateful to people who even skim what I write, this is only part of it:

“I have referred to the fact that when a man retires from his political party he is a traitor — that he is so pronounced in plain language. That is bold; so bold as to deceive many into the fancy that it is true. Desertion, treason — these are the terms applied. . .  What is the process when a voter joins a party? Must he prove that he is sound in any way, mind or body? Must he prove that he knows anything — is capable of anything — whatever? Does he take an oath or make a promise of any sort?— or doesn’t he leave himself entirely free? If he were informed by the political boss that if he join, it must be forever; that he must be that party’s chattel and wear its brass collar the rest of his days — would not that insult him? It goes without saying. He would say some rude, unprintable thing, and turn his back on that preposterous organization. But the political boss puts no conditions upon him at all; and this volunteer makes no promises, enlists for no stated term. He has in no sense become a part of an army; he is in no way restrained of his freedom. Yet he will presently find that his bosses and his newspapers have assumed just the reverse of that: that they have blandly arrogated to themselves an ironclad military authority over him; and within twelve months, if he is an average man, he will have surrendered his liberty, and will actually be silly enough to believe that he cannot leave that party, for any cause whatever, without being a shameful traitor, a deserter, a legitimately dishonored man.

There you have the just measure of that freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech and action which we hear so much inflated foolishness about as being the precious possession of the republic. Whereas, in truth, the surest way for a man to make of himself a target for almost universal scorn, obloquy, slander, and insult is to stop twaddling about these priceless independencies and attempt to exercise one of them. If he is a preacher half his congregation will clamor for his expulsion — and will expel him, except they find it will injure real estate in the neighborhood; if he is a doctor his own dead will turn against him.

I repeat that the new party-member who supposed himself independent will presently find that the party have somehow got a mortgage on his soul, and that within a year he will recognize the mortgage, deliver up his liberty, and actually believe he cannot retire from that party from any motive howsoever high and right in his own eyes without shame and dishonor.

. . .

This infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of the baser sort — and doubtless for that it was borrowed — or stolen — from the monarchial system. It enables them to foist upon the country officials whom no self-respecting man would vote for if he could but come to understand that loyalty to himself is his first and highest duty, not loyalty to any party name.

Shall you say the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say that it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter and become a mouthing lunatic besides? Oh no, you say; it does not demand that. But what if it produce that in spite of you? . . .”


"He taught them that the only true freedom of thought is to think as the party thinks; that the only true freedom of speech is to speak as the party dictates; that the only righteous toleration is toleration of what the party approves; that patriotism, duty, citizenship, devotion to country, loyalty to the flag, are all summed up in loyalty to the party. Save the party, uphold the party, make the party victorious, though all things else go to ruin and the grave.”

It reads like a satire, but it is real life. It hasn’t changed at all since Mark Twain’s day. Someone should have read it at McCain’s funeral even if they are all pretending to care about what he preached and how he conducted his life. Because that's them, that's most people.  Before he died and after he died.

I saw what I expected to see as the funerals approached. Putting on C-Span, I watched one Senator (I’ll be nice and leave out his name) praise him for putting “country over party.” I am sure many did. If they thought it was such a good thing, I’d expect we’d see them do it too. But, that hasn’t been my experience with that Senator or most of the two parties (Graham, Manchin, come to mind).  I turned the tv off before I saw crocodile tears, which may have been genuine, for all I know. People have an incredible capacity for self-deception.  I thought it would be too much to watch his televised funeral, but at the last moment I decided to do so. It wasn’t so bad. The eulogists did a reasonably good, if not inspired job.

But I heard about “country first” again at his funeral in Arizona. How long will that last? I expect until the tv coverage ends and it is back to day to day politics. And, in fact, just now, I learned that this same Senator – Okay, Chuck Schumer. There, I said it – in response to the White House holding back a fraction of the record-setting number of documents demanded in Justice Kavanaugh’s hearing (requesting something like 4 to 5 times the amount of the next highest number requested for any previous Supreme Court nominee and they’ve already released far more than twice as much as the next largest earlier production), is claiming it is a “cover up.” Well, you know, it could be, of course, but I doubt it. But, both parties have dirty secrets and are reprehensible when in power. Maybe Kavanaugh is a serial killer who only targets widows and orphans. They would run with that if they thought it would work. And, if they can find one women who thought one off color joke by a staffer of his was improper and who did not lose his job, they will act as if Kavanaugh raped an entire village.

If you aren’t spinning already, John, start now. What do you think would happen if he didn’t die, and came back to the Senate? The same grieving conservatives would have disliked him as an apostate, respecting only the small power he had garnered. The same grieving liberals as a right wing nut case, as they did when he opposed Obama. It is not that I don’t think that people should patch up quarrels after they retire. I do, where it is genuine. But, he wasn’t retired. And this isn’t genuine, even for those who are genuinely touched by his death.

At the top of this post I quoted from a Camus book I read quite a long time ago, The Fall. It was a great book, I thought superior to The Stranger, his most famous. But, little stuck has stuck with me over the decades but the tone of the book and that one line, which I vaguely remembered and had to look up. I put his question to those politicians mourning McCain. Why are they all so complimentary and admiring to a man whose political philosophy they rejected out of hand? Because they no longer have to deal with him, have any “obligation” towards him. As when he lost the election – gave up – they could afford to be generous. It makes them look good. Ironically, the biggest jerk of them all, Trump, is being the most genuine, outside of McCain’s family, who I expect loved him.

I would like to avoid going to funerals where I'm not wanted and don't want to go, in my life. I can think of someone I know who I found more than a little disagreeable in life, who will likely precede me to the grave. I have said that I do not want to go to that person's funeral to others who think it is a matter of showing respect, being supportive of a survivor or just being conventional. What if I have no respects to pay?  What if I think it will be a distraction or that it is showing disrespect?  If I do go, for I am subject to acting out of pity, it will be out of obligation to the living. Probably, I would regret it, even if it is not dramatic. 

McCain did put country first. At least, consistent with his beliefs. And he did it to his own detriment over and over again. He would tell them in Iowa that corn subsidies were wrong and he’d say in the industrial belt that those jobs weren’t coming back. He’d even say this when campaigning. And, when he thought it was important, he’d vote against his party. At the end, I think he may have been voting against Trump.

Of course, he could be wrong, or, I could think him wrong and I did so all the time. It doesn’t matter – as Stalin once, supposedly anyway, said of Churchill – I don’t know what he said, but I like his spirit. I did like McCain’s spirit. I liked his sense of humor, I liked him calling his friends, even kids “jerks,” I loved his standing up to his party, and I liked his admitting when he was wrong or that economics wasn’t one of his strengths (it wasn’t – he seemed clueless). It is a rare trait in any person, never mind a politician.

Over and over again, it has been said that he acknowledged he wasn’t perfect. Well, come on, he’d better. But, then again, others don’t. He was far from perfect but admitted that he had pandered and did things he wasn’t proud of to win. Maybe it was not much, but it was a lot more than I hear others doing. And he did it while he was vulnerable and in the game.

But, did he have a happy life (we sometimes ask when people die)? Not counting the 5 ½ years of hell, of course.  I expect a lot of the time he was genuinely pissed off, but, he had a job that would lend itself to it. Still, it seemed to me that he was happier than most were -  a happy warrior compared to most of them.

Speaking of happiness, I am reminded . . .  that always sounds pompous. Take two. Once, a long, long time ago. . . Take three. You know I like history, right? And, Herodotus, was the “father of history?” Heard of him, right? So, in his histories, he wrote about a king named Croesus. Croesus was so rich (his people, the Lydians, who lived in modern day Turkey, may actually have invented coinage, or at least solid silver or gold coinage) that we still 2500 or so years later have an expression, “. . . rich as Croesus.” People said it when I was growing up all the time and it was a thing. Anyway, rich as he was, when the celebrated wise man, Solon, paid him a visit, he made the mistake of asking him if he was the happiest person. Solon, undeterred by Croesus’ disappointment, explained that he wasn’t. Apparently, you have to be dead before you know, to see if you died well and what else was going to happen in your life. You can almost see Donald Trump asking some celebrated wise man this and being angered at the answer.

Croesus had some setbacks. His beloved son, who he tried to protect after being warned about his death by an oracle, was killed nevertheless in the manner predicted. He was totally f’d by an oracle and attacked Persia, destroying an empire, just as the oracle predicted – but it was his own. He was almost burned alive by Cyrus, the greatest conqueror of his generation, but, either through royal or divine intervention, survived and faithfully served his conqueror. But, given a measure of freedom, he was no longer a king. It did not seem like he met the expectations he set for himself or ever achieved the happiness he thought his wealth deserved. I have to say, I know a few people like that.

It would seem to me, applying Solon’s standards, McCain was wildly successful and happy. He arguably had a head start, being the son of an admiral who was the son of an admiral. I have not read any of his books, and I cannot say whether he had a pleasant or sad childhood, whether his birth was a benefit to him or too much pressure. Whatever it was, he ended up flying a bomber in the Vietnam War, was shot down, was gravely injured in his crash, worse when captured, worse when tortured for years. And, like Trump, he’d tell you he was no hero, he cracked. He signed a statement for his enemies and prepared to kill himself, stopped by his tormentors. He should not have suffered so. But, just the same, it probably forged his personality to a large degree, just by surviving it. I’m sure he would rather have done without it, a hundred times over. But, it also made his reputation forever. Even if it is a thin silver lining, it was something. Who besides him and Trump would say he wasn’t a hero? I’m sure there are some, because many people – many good people - can’t separate politics and character. McCain could and did. For all his famed feistiness, he was forgiving, probably more so than I am. He went back to Vietnam more than once, and was instrumental in that country’s partial reconciliation with us.

I have said before, I do not understand the story about his refusal to leave Vietnam before his turn (they went in order of capture), when the Northern Vietnamese found out his parentage. I do not understand why they didn’t tie him up in a box and drop him off at the Swiss embassy. What would they do? Give him back? Still, no one has ever challenged it and maybe it is true. I can’t say.

I listened to the eulogies of Joe Biden, Barack Obama and George Bush. McCain chose them to show we have to get past political differences, as he was justly famous for doing. And, they spoke well. Everyone has spoken movingly about him, obviously other than Trump, who, left out, has been wisely and uncharacteristically mostly silent about it. His daughter and son-in-law did attend and sat quietly through the withering “America has always been great,” shot at Trump by McCain’s daughter. To be honest, she’s entitled at her father’s funeral to some liberties, but, I thought it unnecessary, a distraction and not so wise.

Many commentators are, in fact, claiming the funeral, designed by McCain to a large extent, was a repudiation of Trump by his exclusion (though it was said if he came, no one would have stopped him).  I can’t say for sure, of course, but I think they are, too some degree, at least, correct. It was just a sentence here or there, but it was enough. Looking at it as generously as possible, in repudiating Trump, he was repudiating the one he sees as epitomizing what he didn’t like about politics in general on both sides.  But, how much a “healer” McCain would have appeared to be had he invited Trump?  I don’t think Trump is so narcissistic that he would have ruined the funeral, although others might have been ungracious to him. Trump Derangement Syndrome knows few boundaries.

How do you have healing when the president, elected by roughly half the electorate, and geographically speaking, most of the country, is excluded and mocked? If that was McCain’s plan, it was a dumb one. He’s not responsible for his daughter’s eulogy or the jabs taken here and there at the president. To the extent he would have smiled, well, the celebration of his life is marred by that too, because making it about Trump - which is now the media drumbeat, trivialized McCain's life - which was about so much more.

As always, I’m not trying to be remotely comprehensive about his life or even his funeral. I left a lot out that I know without reading it, and I’m sure there is even more on just Wikipedia that I don’t know. I don’t really care enough about the details to study it. I just know why I liked him so much more than everyone else, although, as stated in that 2006 post, I recognize that these are probably some of the same reasons others despise him. You know what they are too, so I don’t have to say. Nor do I want to try to compete with the eulogizers. They did pretty well, even Bush, with whom a speech can be a deadly weapon.

I’m just going to say, good-bye John. I think we are lucky to have had you. You made politics better, even if in a small way. Perhaps it was not with any lasting success, but some small success that will resonate here or there. Perhaps, like some of history's unsung heroes, it will be a long term victory rather than a short term one. Perhaps that’s the most anyone can do. And it definitely is not the same without you.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .