John McCain’s Death Fuels Debate About His Complex Legacy

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Senator John McCain has died, after a year-long battle with brain cancer. He was 81. The New York Times first reported on McCain’s death, describing the late Republican senator as a “war hero.”

Since then, as The Hill reported, all living presidents have honored McCain in some fashion. Donald Trump shared his condolences via Twitter, Michelle and Barack Obama issued a joint statement, George W. Bush honored the senator by calling him “a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order,” Bill and Hillary Clinton described McCain as a hero, and Jimmy Carter called him a “true patriot,” and a “man of honor.”

With news of McCain’s death hitting the headlines worldwide, a tidal wave of tributes, op-eds, and obituaries flooded social networking websites.

One piece stands out. A missive penned by Tim Dickinson for Rolling Stone entitled, “John McCain, Legendary Republican Senator, Dead at 81,” is a meditation on McCain’s complex legacy. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain was taken prisoner during the Vietnam war. Shortly after his return to the United States, he entered politics, embarking on a career in the political arena — a controversial journey that would span over nearly four decades.

On his homecoming, in May of 1973, McCain authored a first-person account of his captivity for U.S. News and World Report. In the piece, McCain repeatedly refers to the Vietnamese as “gooks,” while expressing praise for President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia.

It is McCain’s praise of Nixon, according to Rolling Stone, that was responsible for his subsequent ubiquitous presence in American right-wing circles. That, and his opposition to the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

McCain ran for the office of president twice — in 2000, he challenged George W. Bush, and in 2008 he challenged Barack Obama. He had previously taken a pro-environmentalist stance, but in 2008, campaigned on a platform personified by the infamous “Drill, Baby, Drill!” slogan, the Rolling Stone noted.

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Around the same time, McCain fully embraced neoconservatism, singing “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb; Bomb, Bomb Iran,” and was once quoted as stating that he would be fine if American troops stayed in Iraq for “a hundred years.”

According to Dickinson, McCain was a political chameleon, whose defining legacy will be the selection of Sarah Palin as running mate. This, Dickinson added, “opened a Pandora’s Box of right-wing populism, energizing the nascent Tea Party and presaging the triumph of Donald Trump.”

“Up to and including his final year in office, McCain’s bold declarations of principle were often later reversed, or quietly abandoned.”

McCain’s maverick reputation — the reputation of a man willing to put country over party — and many of his political decisions were, in fact, fueled by “less-noble motivations – of pique or public relations,” the Rolling Stone concluded.

Senator John McCain’s career-long opposition to torture is, perhaps, what he will be remembered for, according to Vox. The publication caveats this cenotaph by elaborating that although McCain was a “strong moral voice against torture, his willingness to compromise his principles tarnished that legacy.”