John McCain’s sad, bitter twilight

The senator's contempt for Chuck Hagel in Thursday's confirmation hearing was all about the guy who nominated him

Topics: The American Prospect, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense,

John McCain's sad, bitter twilightJohn McCain (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect “That one,” John McCain famously snarled in a presidential debate four years ago, referring to his opponent, who was a quarter of a century younger than McCain and who had been in the Senate 3 years to McCain’s 20. It’s difficult to imagine a better revelation of the McCain psyche than that moment, but if there is one, then it came yesterday at the meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, convened to consider the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. The McCain fury is something to behold, almost irresistible for how unvarnished it is in all its forms. In the instance of the 2008 debate, McCain’s dumbfounded antipathy had to do with facing an opponent he so clearly considered unworthy. In the instance of the hearing yesterday, McCain’s bitter blast was at somebody who once was among his closest friends, a former Vietnam warrior and fellow Republican of a similarly independent ilk who supported McCain’s first run for the presidency in 2000 against George W. Bush but then appeared to abandon the Arizona senator eight years later.

If all this suggests political differences born largely of personal dynamics and their breach, it’s because for McCain the two are interchangeable. At this moment, we should make the effort to remind ourselves of what’s commendable about McCain, an admiral’s son who could only live up to his father’s reputation by way of five years in a Hanoi jail, where he walked — or hobbled, given the crippling abuse he suffered at the hands of his captors — the walk of loyalty and didn’t just talk it. When offered freedom halfway through those five years, he refused to leave behind his fellow prisoners of war who had been there longer and were due their freedom first. It’s a story so formidable that 12 years ago Bush supporters resorted to suggesting McCain was a “Hanoi Candidate,” brainwashed in the manner of cinematic Manchurians. So let’s not question McCain’s courage, or a code that means as much to him as patriotism. In that initial presidential run, admiration for the man trumped what disagreements overly romantic voters like myself had when it came time to mark his name on our ballots (as I did in that year’s California primary).



In the time since, two things have happened to McCain. One was the Iraq War, the worst American foreign policy blunder of the post–World War II era, which McCain wholeheartedly supported from the beginning and about which he’s never intimated a second thought. The other was Barack Obama, electoral politics’ upstart lieutenant whose bid to become five-star general, bypassing stops along the way at captain, major and colonel, wasn’t just temerity to a man who waited his turn to be released from prison, but insubordination. Those two things converged yesterday in McCain’s prosecution of Hagel, no less sorry a spectacle on McCain’s part for the fact that Hagel handled it so unimpressively. Perhaps Hagel was startled, figuring his one-time compatriot would be tough but not vicious. If that’s the case, then he never knew McCain as well as he thought or hoped, because if he did then he would know that McCain is a man of grudges. In his memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” in which words like “gallantry” appear without embarrassment (and which no one has more earned the right to use), McCain himself acknowledges being the congenital hothead of legend who’s nearly come to blows with colleagues. Half a century later, he recalls every altercation with every Naval Academy classmate; as a child, rage sometimes drove him to hold his breath until he blacked out. No need to indulge in untrained psychotherapy from afar to surmise that the ability to nurse such a grudge may be what gets you through half a decade of cruel incarceration.

At any rate, what happened yesterday wasn’t about Hagel at all. It wasn’t even about the Iraq War’s 2007 “surge,” which McCain is desperate to justify because he can never justify the war itself, which finds Hagel moved to the right side of history while McCain remains stubbornly on the wrong. It’s about that junior senator from Illinois who crossed McCain early in some obscure backroom Senate deal no one can remember anymore, then denied McCain the presidency in no small part because Obama understood the folly of Iraq better than McCain can allow himself to. McCain’s personal honor in Hanoi was too hard won to be stained now by almost anything he does, including how he’s allowed temperament, pique and ego to steamroll the judgment and perspective that we hope all of our elected officers have, let alone presidents. But his political honor, not to mention whatever might once have recommended him to the presidency, has fallen victim to the way that Obama has gotten fatally under his skin. Even if this once-noble statesman should succeed in denying Hagel’s nomination as he denied Susan Rice’s prospects for Secretary of State (and even the most devout Hagel supporter would have to acknowledge that the Defense nominee’s performance before the Committee was often a shambles), McCain’s unrelenting obsession with the grievance that Obama has come to represent to him is the saddest legacy in memory. The very fact of Obama and all things Obamic has turned McCain into something toxic, maybe even to himself.

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>