John McCain and glorifying prominent people
Figuring out how to react to an influential figure’s death is difficult. We know how to react to an average person’s death: with sympathy and respect. But the role that politicians play in our society makes it misguided, even irresponsible, to eulogize their passing without acknowledging their failures. We risk obfuscating, justifying and glorifying these failures, even ones that have substantial and wide-ranging impacts on peoples’ lives.
When John McCain, a widely admired veteran and senator, passed away last week it offered a perfect example of why this is the case. He was affable and well-liked by those who knew him personally, and he seemed to genuinely believe in some set of guiding principles. Headlines rave about his status as a war hero and a “maverick,” and his Senate colleagues, from Mitch McConnell to Bernie Sanders, have expressed admiration for him. However, as McCain himself admitted, he made a lot of mistakes; some observers, mostly from the left-wing, have taken those mistakes and run with them, celebrating the death of a man they see as pure evil. Many of his admirers would have him immortalized in our collective memory as the ideal American, and many of his harshest critics would love to see him eternally damned. What seems hard about memorializing McCain is that to some extent both of these sides are right: He did have principles; he did resist the Grand Old Party’s white nationalist swing; and he did promote death all over the world.
McCain’s mistakes aren’t trivial. As a legislator, he advocated for a violent, imperialistic American foreign policy throughout his career, and he strongly supported the war in Iraq. Not only did he vote to support the invasion, but he gleefully championed it: In January of 2002, he yelled from an aircraft carrier, “Next up, Baghdad!” An eagerness for violent military conquest doesn’t seem like something to memorialize for future generations.
As a result of being tortured while serving in the Vietnam War, McCain was probably the country’s most important voice in opposition to the practice. But he also allowed people like Gina Haspel, whose 2018 confirmation as CIA director he opposed because of her complicity in torture, to evade any repercussions for their crimes. In a 2005 bill intended to prohibit torture, McCain caved to pressure from the Bush White House to exempt the CIA from the proposed restrictions and to protect the perpetrators against legal ramifications. In other words, John McCain protected Haspel and her fellow torturers from facing justice.
McCain’s dangerous worldview and willingness to compromise on his convictions illuminate the flaws in how we treat the legacies of powerful people—we can’t separate personality from policy. Of course, there’s no need for the taunting and mockery of McCain that many leftists are engaging in online. I’m sure the former presidents, journalists and members of Congress mourning his loss are being genuine; I’m sure he really was a pleasant guy to be around, and I’m sure he wanted what was best for his country. One can undoubtedly glean worthy advice from his life.
But there’s something very troubling about the way that this complicated, deeply flawed man, whose words and actions hurt millions of people all around the world, has already begun to be deified in the public consciousness. There’s a tendency across the political spectrum to separate McCain’s (or any public figure’s) character from his politics—to say that even if you believe his policy goals were appalling, you have to admire him as an individual. But the nature of public service means he doesn’t get the privilege of that distinction. The person without his impact is an incomplete picture because his impact is a part of who he was as a person.
It’s worth reflecting honestly and critically on John McCain, not just for our memory of him, but for our memory of all public servants. He was beloved, and he deserves to be mourned just like anyone, but he doesn’t deserve praise into the indefinite future. The most powerful people in the world can’t be separated in death from how they affected people in life. Every time we apotheosize a politician, we limit and distort our understanding of what it means for a future politician to be truly good, and we risk allowing ourselves to forget the sins our country commits.