John McCain, Donald Trump, and the Sirens’ Song

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Was John McCain a great American or a profound disappointment? Sensing another opportunity to berate and criticize a president they loathe, much of the media have championed the late U.S. senator from Arizona and excoriated President Trump for daring to criticize him. It speaks well of our culture that we are discouraged from speaking ill of the dead. But McCain still has great symbolic resonance for many Americans, and if we want to understand the essence of American greatness, he can still teach us much.

The greatest thing an American can do is to sacrifice for his or her country, and McCain’s torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam War reflect such a sacrifice. Still, after the war, McCain in his role as a senator was one of the miscreants in the “Keating Five” scandal. Although McCain escaped punishment, he did seem to demonstrate at least some corruptibility.

In his last election to the Senate, McCain prevailed, in no small part, because he had promised to participate in the repeal of Obamacare, a promise he famously broke with his nationally televised thumbs-down gesture. That action apparently was designed to frustrate the plans of President Trump, whom McCain famously disdained.

Recently we have had confirmation that McCain was also instrumental in circulating the spurious Steele dossier with its fanciful, though damaging, allegations of Russian collusion on the part of the president. Whether McCain was the dupe of those implementing their “insurance policy” against the president, or whether his efforts flowed from genuine and continuing enmity and jealousy for a man who had achieved a goal that eluded McCain, we can now only speculate.

Grievous though his experience at the Hanoi Hilton may have been, adding up McCain’s years in the public eye, especially his reputation as a “maverick” and his constant currying of favor with a Republican-hating media, leads one to see McCain’s career as more one of relentless self-advancement rather than one of selfless virtue.

None of us is without flaws, of course, but a man so petty that he would exclude a sitting president from his planned and elaborate obsequies is something less than completely admirable.

McCain’s greatest legislative achievement was his collaboration with liberal Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on campaign finance reform, but that reform, as virtually all such efforts turn out to be, was little more than an elaborate incumbency protection device. As such, McCain’s championing of that particular cause was of a piece with his other self-protective and self-interested efforts.

McCain’s fickle friends in the national media relentlessly excoriated him for his choice of Sarah Palin as a presidential running-mate in 2008, but Palin was at least a truer adherent to conservative principles than was McCain himself. It is worthy of note that while McCain subsequently distanced himself from the former governor of Alaska, she has never strayed from apparent loyalty to him.

A reputation as a trimmer is often poisonous for a politician, even though an ability to compromise is also regarded as a virtue of a statesman. This is a paradox of politics, but that compromise, to be laudable, ought to be in service of higher goals than self-aggrandizement, and the evidence that McCain was ever capable of that is slight. During his peacetime career, more often than not, McCain was actually a creature of the swamp that President Trump has sought to drain. It’s no wonder that Trump, sometimes a teller of inconvenient truths, cannot help himself from saying that he has never been an admirer of the late senator.

What is necessary now to achieve American greatness is a return to the principles of the American Founding, to the appointment of judges who seek to implement the original constitutional understanding, to the taming of the federal leviathan and the administrative state, to the promotion of economic progress and social mobility, to the strengthening of state and local governments, and to the reformation of our border security and immigration policies. The administration of Donald Trump, in spite of the uniform hostility of most of the media and the administration’s deep state enemies’ machinations, remains committed to these goals. These were not the aims, unfortunately, of the Obama Administration, and McCain’s presidential campaign, equally unfortunately, was not able to present a powerful enough argument to the American people to prevent Obama’s election.

It is now incumbent on those of us still committed to the vision of the Founders to do what we can to further this nation’s actual needs, and frustrate the designs of the self-serving—including, sadly, the late John McCain and his acolytes. Right now that means that Americans concerned for the preservation of our republic should be supporting a president brave and sensible enough to resist the siren songs of the “progressives,” the socialists, the proponents of the Green New Deal, and their full-throated supporting media chorus.

Photo credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.