John McCain: Veteran of a Nobler Conservatism

John McCain (1936-2018) was a Republican from another era: a politician of the center and of ideals. But when his ambition asked for it, he played dirty political games.

“Watch the show,” John McCain said in the U.S. Senate to journalists right before he, in the summer of 2017, killed the last attempt by Republicans to repeal Obama’s health care law. In the Senate, there were audible gasps when McCain, like a Roman emperor in the arena, walked to the front, turned his thumb downward, and, with a “no,” voted his decisive dissenting vote.

A week before, McCain had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Straight from the hospital with a fresh scar on his forehead, he had made a passionate plea upon his return in the Senate: against the polarization in Washington, against the tribalism of the political discourse, which makes every compromise suspicious. “We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done.”

It was, for the last time, typical McCain. The veteran who fought for an ideal on the political battlefield. The Republican from another, nobler era, representative of a more principled conservatism. And also: the vain showman who was fully aware of this all.

“…no one in Washington has been the subject and the perpetrator of more mythmaking than McCain,” wrote journalist Mark Leibovich in a 2013 profile in The New York Times. “… the maverick, the former maverick, the curmudgeon, the bridge builder, the war hero (…), happy warrior, elder statesman, lion in winter.”

John McCain, 81 years old, passed away on Saturday, after 3 1/2 decades in the Washington political arena. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1983 – Ronald Reagan was president – and came to the Senate for the state of Arizona in 1987. He tried twice to become president. In 2000, he lost the battle for the Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, and in 2008, he lost the election to Barack Obama.

McCain had been unable to attend the Senate since the end of 2017, but he did not sit still, he took charge of his legacy. In May, the last part of his memoirs was published, in which he acts as the defender of the postwar world order and American exceptionalism, which faces pressure under Donald Trump. Also, he participated in a documentary in which he is portrayed as an American hero serving the public good. The title was, “John McCain – for Whom the Bell Tolls” after a novel by Ernest Hemingway about the Spanish Civil War, in which the main character carries out a mission at the expense of his life.

Prisoner of War

The defining fight in McCain’s life started in 1967 when pilot John McCain’s bomber was shot down over Vietnam. McCain landed in a lake, with two broken arms and a broken leg, and was pulled out by North Vietnamese soldiers. He would spend 5 1/2 years in captivity. He refused the release he was offered for being the son of an admiral because he wanted Americans who were taken prisoners of war before him to be released as well, just as American protocol dictated. From August 1968 on, he was tortured regularly. It would last until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, before McCain was released.*

His status as a war hero which McCain derived from this period would continue to determine in part his later political opinions and reputation. As such, his impassioned patriotism always remained very militaristic. In his political life, McCain often pleaded for “lethal aid” and other military interventions by the U.S. on the world stage; after 9/11, he voted to attack Afghanistan and later Iraq. He was a proponent of sending more troops to Iraq when the insurgency started there, and of arming Ukraine against Russia. He consistently and utterly condemned Trump’s friendly treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even from his sickbed after the summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki at the start of July. Trump “debased himself (…) abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain wrote in a statement.

Marine Pilot

McCain, who was born in 1936 at an American marine base in Panama into a family with a long military tradition, made the switch from the U.S. Army to politics after his return from Vietnam, when he underwent painful treatments for his injuries and after his first marriage failed.** He remarried Cindy Helmsley, daughter of a beer magnate, settled in Arizona, stood for election in the House of Representatives, and, after five years, ran for the Senate.

In his 30 years in the Senate, McCain initially emerged as a pragmatic Republican. He cultivated a reputation of contrariness because he never minced words and liked to work together with Democrats when domestic affairs like campaign financing, immigration and curbing climate change were concerned, something which is no longer imaginable now.

McCain always emphasized his convictions and noble ideals, but he surely played dirty political games when his ambition called for it. After his defeat in the presidential race against Obama, he went along, apparently effortlessly, with the line of ruthless opposition that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell mapped out. Under pressure from the tea party in his home state of Arizona, McCain opposed Obama’s health care law. He changed his position on gays in the U.S. Army and opposed Obama’s climate politics. Also, in his later life, McCain was not always a man of principle. He dramatically torpedoed the Republican alternative for Obama’s health care law, but he subsequently voted in favor of Trump’s tax law that still pulled the foundation out from under Obama’s health care system.

Over the years, McCain was deeply rooted in Washington. He was appreciated everywhere for the fact that he spared no one in his sometimes biting mockery, not even himself. After his diagnosis, he tweeted, “I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!”

Sacrificed Principles

In his recent memoirs (book and film), McCain expressed regret for several of his political choices, for the times he made “a sacrifice of principle for personal ambition.” “There were times when a little less help from my side would have benefited the country,” he writes.***

He regretted, for example, that he did not choose his friend, the Democrat Joe Lieberman, as his running mate in 2008, but chose “soccer mom” Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska instead. By giving Palin a national stage, McCain and other Republicans thought they could tame the reactionary-populist current in the Republican Party. But the opposite happened: the wave of Republican resentment that emerged, in part, thanks to Palin, ultimately helped Trump get elected to office.

McCain despised Trump, in his eyes, a hollow demagogue who could not represent America’s values, although this did not stop him from obediently voting with his party when Trump’s cabinet nominations or judicial appointments were concerned. In turn, McCain was a longstanding and favorite target of Trump. Infamous is Trump’s remark, in 2015, that McCain was not a war hero: “I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain did not want Trump at his funeral. According to the American media, former presidents George W. Bush and Obama are invited to speak.


As a considerate politician of the middle, McCain became outdated because the Republicans moved increasingly to the right and toward a lack of compromise. “McCain and the end of romantic conservatism,” read the headline of a recent profile in The New Yorker. But it was exactly that development which gave McCain the role he so very much liked to play in his final years: defender of the postwar status quo and of America as its keeper.

The self-declared maverick who stands firm for the existing order – of course, the irony of this did not escape McCain. “It just goes to show,” he told The New York Times, “that if you live long enough, anything is possible.”

*Editor’s note: The United States and North Vietnam reached a final peace agreement in January 1973 ending open hostilities between the two nations, and the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam two months later. On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam fell to communist forces.

**Editor’s note: John McCain was born at a U.S. Navy hospital at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone.

***Translator’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.

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