Senator John McCain, a perennial voice for interventionist foreign policy in the Senate and two-time presidential candidate, has died after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer. He was 81.
McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986, succeeding Barry Goldwater in representing Arizona. The Vietnam War Veteran and POW was known for his role on several Senate committees that set the tone for American foreign policy. McCain often led groups of lawmakers to other countries and was outspoken against the U.S. use of torture.
During his first run for President in 2000, McCain earned the reputation of a “maverick” who would often break from partisan positions. He eventually lost the nomination to George W. Bush, but became one of Bush’s strongest allies for the “war on terror” in the Senate.
In 2008, McCain ran a thoroughly mainstream Republican campaign, drawing criticism from the right wing in what would eventually grow into the tea party movement. McCain later frequently criticized then-President Barack Obama over his handling of the wars in Syria and Iraq, and blamed him for the rise of ISIS.
In the 2016 presidential election, Senator McCain often quarrelled with presidential candidate Donald Trump, who challenged McCain’s military record in 2015, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” In his last years, McCain supported NATO involvement in Libya, U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, and condemned closer ties with Cuba and Iran.
Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell spoke with Jacob Weisberg who has written about John McCain for decades. He’s the editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and penned the foreword to David Foster Wallace’s McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.
McCain’s affinity to Teddy Roosevelt
Jerome McDonnell: McCain’s grandfather had an association with Roosevelt in the Navy, and it seems like they had a mindset kinship.
Jacob Weisberg: Teddy Roosevelt was an example of the the kind of republicanism McCain wanted to represent — both in terms of a more progressive and interventionist domestic government, but also with a “walk tall and carry a big stick” foreign policy posture. In many ways, that’s the antithesis of the small-government conservatism that emerged out of Reaganism.
McCain’s presidential campaign strategy
Weisberg: He tried to answer any question from any person. He really presented himself as an appealing figure who tried to carry on a campaign in a different way. One thing I’ll never forget is that when he went to South Carolina on that campaign and defended the Confederate flag over the state capital, he went back after he lost and apologized. He said that in the heat of the campaign, he did something morally wrong and that he felt honor-bound to address it. That’s what the campaign was like.
If you covered McCain in 2000, it was really sad to see his 2008 campaign. He just seemed like he’d gotten old and tired. You’d see glimpses of candor, but he surrounded himself by a bunch of party operatives and hacks. It worked, in that he got the nomination, but it wasn’t the same.
What a President McCain would have looked like
Weisberg: After the Iraq War, I don’t know if interventionism would’ve been possible in the same way that McCain at one point would’ve conceived. But John McCain was not an irrational person. It was not the kind of thing we worry about with Donald Trump, with the background and the military understanding.