What sort of person takes a break from taxpayer-funded cancer treatment and flies 2,000 miles to cast a vote that could result in 22 million people losing their health insurance and tens of thousands of them also losing their lives, then makes a big speech about how messed up the whole process is?
Perhaps the same sort of person who relentlessly agitated for an invasion and occupation of Iraq that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and led to millions of others being displaced from their homes?
Or maybe the same sort of person who put personal and party interests ahead of the national interest when he picked the know-nothing, far-right demagogue Sarah Palin, the ur-Trump, as his running mate in 2008?
Meet John Sidney McCain III: veteran Republican senator from Arizona and former GOP presidential candidate, who endured horrific torture and abuse at the hands of the Viet Cong between 1967 and 1973, and who was tragically diagnosed with brain cancer last week — and who has also been a loathsome human being for most of his eight decades on this planet.
McCain, whose nickname in high school was “McNasty,” has a long and well-documented history of temper tantrums and vicious bullying. The victims of his profanity-laden tirades range from his Democratic opponents and their children — “Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father,” he joked at a 1998 Republican fundraiser — to anti-war protesters (“low-life scum“) to fellow Republican Sens. Charles Grassley (“fucking jerk“) and Peter Domenici (“asshole“).
He once compared the president of Iran to a monkey and still insists on calling his Vietnamese captors “gooks” (the fact that they brutally tortured him does not excuse his repeated use of a crude racial epithet). Then there is his poor wife. As journalist Cliff Schecter recounts in his 2008 book “The Real McCain”:
In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain’s hair and said, “You’re getting a little thin up there.” McCain’s face reddened, and he responded, “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt.”
None of this, however, seems to matter to his legion of fans and admirers in the press. “It is simply impossible to overestimate the love, bordering on worship, that reporters in Washington long had for McCain,” wrote the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman on Tuesday, “and to a great degree still do.”
It is thanks to these friendly journalists — “my base,” as McCain dubbed them — that the Arizona senator has been able to cultivate his image as an independent, a rebel, a maverick. Yet the truth is that McCain has always been a card-carrying conservative.
The former GOP presidential candidate, who proudly calls himself pro-life and a “Reagan Republican,” spent his first decade in Congress voting for tax cuts and trying to block the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He has earned a lifetime rating of 81.6 percent from the American Conservative Union and, according to a survey by FiveThirtyEight, has voted in line with President Donald Trump — a leader with whom he pretends to disagree — 90.7 percent of the time. (“Never Trump”? Well, I guess 9.3 percent of the time.)
McCain, to quote FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, is a “MINO … or maverick in name only.” He is, perhaps above all else, a brazen hypocrite. Here is a Republican foreign policy hawk who sanctimoniously suggests support for human rights “must be an essential part of our foreign policy” while backing war after war that violate those very same rights. Here is a hero of the neocons who issues pious proclamations about the importance of promoting democracy and free elections while also cozying up to some of the world’s worst dictators.
As ever, his boosters in the media give him cover. In a fulsome if bizarre encomium to the former GOP presidential candidate last Saturday — headlined “What we can all learn from John McCain” — the Washington Post editorial board declared that “all over this world, Mr. McCain is associated with freedom and democracy” and claimed he had “championed human rights with verve and tirelessness — speaking out against repression and authoritarianism, and inviting … both Republicans and Democrats, to bear witness with him on trips abroad.”
This is pure fantasy. What was McCain bearing witness to in 2009 when he offered to sell weapons to Col. Qaddafi at a private meeting with the Libyan dictator and his son Muatassim? According to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, “McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security.” McCain would later support regime change in Libya but the 2009 cable does not make any mention of him raising the issue of human rights with Qaddafi in person — with or without any “verve.”
What was McCain bearing witness to on all those friendly trips to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he glad-handed Saudi royals? And where was the championing of human rights last month, when he helped block a bipartisan attempt in the Senate to restrict the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in order to try and reduce the number of civilian casualties in war-torn Yemen? Oh, and was it McCain’s association with “freedom and democracy” that prompted the Saudis to donate $1 million to the McCain Institute at Arizona State University?
The Post’s editorial also heaped praise on McCain for supporting “victims of repression” and offering them “succor and encouragement in the fight against tyranny.” This must have come as a surprise to the Palestinians, victims of the longest ongoing military occupation in the world. The former Republican presidential candidate is a strong defender of Israel and close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2014, he defended Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, and in 2015, he said the U.S. government “shouldn’t be considering” supporting a Palestinian bid for statehood, warning that in the event of the United Nations recognizing a state of Palestine, “the United States Congress would have to examine our funding for the United Nations.” Repressed Palestinians? Screw ’em.
As FAIR.org media analyst Adam Johnson has observed, we have been fed a “childlike narrative of McCain as brave truth-teller, rather than predictable champion of war and empire who occasionally makes toothless references to human rights for the purposes of image curation.”
The “image curation” is in full swing these days — as are the repeated attempts to stifle any criticism of the Arizona senator’s awful political record. Yet those of us who heard McCain call for U.S. troops to occupy Iraq for “100 years”; who watched him laugh and sing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran; who listened to him call for an escalation of the unwinnable war in Afghanistan cannot — and should not have to — stay silent because he was diagnosed with cancer last week, or because of his undoubted bravery in Vietnam five decades ago.
We can wish McCain a speedy recovery while also acknowledging that he is nevertheless, to quote Jimmy Carter, an unrepentant “warmonger.” He has the blood of tens of thousands of innocents, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya, on his hands. And with his vote to move the Republican health care push forward in the Senate this week, he may soon have the blood of tens of thousands of Americans on his hands as well.