Four Shameful Truths About John McCain That All the Media Love in the World Can’t Paper Over

U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona speaking at a town hall at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix in February 2013
John McCain speaks at a town hall meeting in Phoenix in Feburary 2013 (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)
His nation and its press corps gave John McCain a sendoff for the ages. But beneath the shiny veneer, the Arizona senator's legacy is cracked and tarnished.

The mainstream media’s orgy of pious public bereavement for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain having culminated in the Arizona Republican’s September 2 internment at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, it’s fair to ask: Why the unprecedented overkill?

The 81-year-old legislator’s demise, which followed a yearlong battle with brain cancer, was undeniably newsworthy. But as some commentators noted, coverage of McCain’s death exceeded that of former presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. One wonders whether the passing of Jimmy Carter — who, at age 93, is living an unusually modest existence for an ex-president — will receive anything close to the same amount of reverence, and airtime.

What Politico columnist Jack Shafer referred to in May as the Fourth Estate’s “last McCain swoon” commenced not long after the senator announced in July 2017 that doctors had diagnosed him with glioblastoma. Democrats were verklempt at the sight of McCain returning to the Senate floor to cast a dramatic, late-night thumbs-down against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Though two other Republicans joined McCain in voting no, the media-savvy McCain timed his performance to garner all the glory.

Months later, however, McCain voted in favor of Trump’s obscene tax cut for the rich, which contained a repeal of the individual mandate, a pillar of the ACA. But progressives (and most reporters) ignore this contradiction.

The reason: McCain adeptly positioned himself as a foil to President Donald Trump, enemy of Democrats and the free press. And so it was that McCain’s long goodbye turned into a conk buster with which to whomp Trump. The guest of honor abetted his own cause, micromanaging his funeral for maximum effect.

See Also:
The Stains of John McCain, a Front Page Confidential e-book

But you don’t have to be in the tank for Trump in order to honestly assess the legacy of McCain’s political career. Below, archived for posterity, are four reasons to remember John McCain as more than a lovable maverick, long after the glow from the media lovefest fades.

John McCain Was a Warmonger Without Peer

One of the more ridiculous postmortem blandishments heaped on McCain came from Democratic Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who proclaimed in a tweet that McCain was “a warrior for peace.”

Unlike Lewis, however, McCain did not believe in nonviolence. Instead, he favored an American empire robustly sustained by military might. Back in 2003, Mother Jones highlighted every nation McCain ever sought to “bomb, invade, or destabilize.” The magazine came up with more than a dozen. And who could forget McCain’s 2008 version of the old surf-rock classic “Barbara Ann,” which he crooned while campaigning for president: “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb [Iran]”?

McCain was an incessant cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the destabilization of the Middle East and the bloody rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). More than 4,500 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis perished in the catastrophic crusade that ensued. Only on his deathbed did McCain own up to his part in this epic disaster, writing in his 2018 memoir, The Restless Wave, that the Iraq invasion was, “a mistake, a very serious one” and shouldering “my share of the blame.”

Too little, too late for a man whose name graces the $716 billion defense bill that President Trump signed into law in August 2018.

color photo of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and their spouses at a campaign appearance in Virginia on September 10, 2008
McCain and Sarah Palin with their spouses at a rally in Fairfax, Virginia, in September 2008 (Rachael Dickson via Flickr [cropped])

In 2008, Presidential Candidate John McCain Selected Sarah Palin as His Running Mate

This is another blunder McCain could only bring himself to own as the end neared. In The Restless Wave, he tells readers that he knew “in his gut” that former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, should have been his pick, but he let his advisers talk him into anointing Alaska’s wing-nutty Republican governor, Sarah Palin, instead. Poorly vetted and as articulate as a Chatty Cathy doll, Palin proved to be a walking, talking punch line.

Though Barack Obama and his running mate Joe Biden buried the McCain–Palin ticket in the general election, “Caribou Barbie” would become a darling of the Tea Party and is now widely viewed as a forerunner to Donald Trump — the very man McCain lovers love to hate.

In 2012, McCain defended his choice of Palin, telling Politico that she was a “better candidate” for the VP slot than the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee that year, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But in 2018, with the judgment of history no doubt on his mind, McCain bad-mouthed her in his memoir. (Not surprisingly, Palin was not invited to his memorial service.)

color photo of the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. This photo was shot in 2008; the flag was not taken down until 2015 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/07/10/watch-live-as-the-confederate-flag-comes-down-in-south-carolina/?utm_term=.7c8b5996b72e)
Campaigning for the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina, McCain praised the Confederate flag as “a symbol of heritage” (Jason Lander via Flickr)

John McCain Promoted the Politics of Bigotry

Throughout his legislative tenure, McCain displayed a pattern of insensitivity — and sometimes downright bigotry. In 1983, while a congressman, McCain voted against establishing a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to each of his presidential runs, McCain expressed remorse for his ’83 nay.

In 2000, McCain exhibited an excessive fondness for the racial epithet “gook.” Additionally, while campaigning that year in South Carolina, he flip-flopped on the Confederate flag, deeming it a symbol of “racism and slavery” one day, then reversing himself the following day, calling it a “symbol of heritage.”

And in spite of his on-again, off-again support for comprehensive immigration reform, McCain was not above wooing the anti-immigrant crowd. In 2010, his campaign for re-election to the Senate included a ten-point border-security plan, and he enlisted the aid of notoriously nativist Pinal County (Arizona) Sheriff Paul Babeu for a TV commercial in which McCain demanded that the United States “complete the danged fence” on the Mexican border. (Babeu would later be exposed as a crass hypocrite, after he allegedly threatened his Latino boyfriend with deportation.)

Nor has McCain been a friend to the LGBTQ community. He voted in 1996 for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and against a prohibition on discrimination of gays in the workplace. And he opposed the Obama administration’s decision to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the military.

screenshot of the top-left portion of the front page of the September 19, 1990, edition of the New York Times, showing Charles Keating being led to jail in chains. Also pictured on the page is exiled Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Front-page news in 1990: Charles Keating indicted for fraud (screenshot via New York Times)

The Keating Five and Beyond: John McCain and Corruption

In the late 1980s, McCain was exposed as one of the so-called Keating Five: five senators who accepted political contributions from financial flimflam artist Charles Keating and then intervened when federal regulators homed in on Keating’s cash cow, Lincoln Savings and Loan. McCain had reaped $112,000 in campaign contributions from Keating and his associates, plus free plane trips to the millionaire’s vacation home in the Bahamas.

Keating went to prison, leaving taxpayers with a $3.4 billion tab to cover Lincoln’s collapse. A Senate Ethics Committee inquiry dinged McCain for “poor judgment,” but the damage to his reputation was enormous. McCain would use his advocacy of campaign-finance reform as a means to rehabilitate his career, but old habits die hard.

A 1999 Phoenix New Times investigation into McCain’s fundraising prowess found that he was an expert at wooing contributions from donors who had business before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation — which he chaired at the time. McCain received nearly $800,000 from donors who testified before the committee.

In 1990, the Los Angeles Times quoted McCain as complaining about the legacy of the Keating Five scandal.

“This will be on my tombstone,” he predicted. “My name will always be linked with Charlie Keating’s.”

Well, it could be worse. After all, they only give you so much space on a tombstone.

For a more detailed reckoning of John McCain’s sins, download The Stains of John McCain, a free e-book by Front Page Confidential’s Stephen Lemons.

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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