I was reading John McCain’s latest book, “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations,” during the short-lived tempest last month that raged over the crack by a White House aide about the Arizona senator’s life-and-death battle with brain cancer. Kelly Sadler made the comment during a closed-door meeting for Trump communication staffers. Addressing Sen. McCain’s opposition to yet another dubious Trump cabinet pick — Gina Haspel as head of the CIA — Sadler said the senator’s opposition didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.”
That’s a cold way to wish for a swing vote. No official apology was issued by the White House, but not long after, Sadler was no longer haunting the West Wing.
Of course, candidate Donald Trump himself famously mocked McCain early in the 2016 presidential campaign. If you’ll recall, he questioned McCain’s heroism after the naval aviator spent more than five years as a POW in North Vietnam by saying, “I like heroes that don’t get captured.”
And I like presidents who don’t demean war heroes.
Much has been written about these ugly episodes and how they are typical of the thuggery at the heart of this administration.
John McCain is an American hero, and other than inside the Oval Office and among the denizens of Fox News and its No-Truth Zone, there’s bipartisan agreement on this. Reading “The Restless Wave,” what comes through page after page is McCain’s love of country and dedication to service.
The latest book from the long-serving senator from Arizona covers roughly the past decade, with highlights including McCain’s presidential run in 2008, his selection of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential running mate, his musings on the loss of friends like Sen. Edward Kennedy, his uplifting but ultimately futile address to his congressional mates about the need to cooperate, and some thoughts on the current president. Also, there’s enough wonk-ish policy content here to make Bill Clinton nod off. And one thing’s for sure: McCain is no fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The book details the presidential campaign of 2008 from the inside. “It was like drinking from a firehose all day,” McCain writes, addressing the hectic pace candidates must keep. In that race, he was an underdog who finally ran out of money, but who then rebounded through grit and hard work to win the GOP nomination.
McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate remains a head-scratcher, even after reading his take on it.
All presidential contenders select a V.P. based on a multitude of factors — “best person to be a heartbeat away from the presidency” isn’t always a top criterion. But really, Palin? As much as McCain tries to rationalize her selection in these pages, my memory is swamped by images of the post-election Palin, yelling crazily from the stage at Tea Party rallies. Whether Palin helped or hurt McCain’s presidential run, he takes full responsibility for selecting her, as he should.
The real McCain comes through in an anecdote about a town hall meeting during the campaign, involving a Gold Star mother whose son, Matthew Stanley, died in Iraq. She stands to ask a question, and with his support of the war and the surge, McCain writes, “My first thought in the instant she uttered her statement was that she would hold me responsible for her loss, and she would be right to do so.” Instead, the mother, Lynn Savage, told him, “Today, unfortunately I wear a black bracelet in memory of my son who lost his life in Baghdad ...” McCain recalls, “She didn’t ask any questions about the war. She had only come to ask me if I would wear his bracelet.” McCain ends the story: “I wore Matthew Stanley’s bracelet every day of the campaign, and I’ve worn it every day since. I’ll wear it for the rest of my life.”
McCain’s feelings about the current president are best summed up near the end of “The Restless Wave:” “He has declined to distinguish the actions of our government from the crimes of despotic ones. He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes. The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity. He has showered with praise some of the world’s worst tyrants.”
But tell us, Sen. McCain, how do you really feel?
The book also reprints in full McCain’s address to the Senate of last July, when he returned to the chamber after his diagnosis to plead for civility and cooperation, and details his dramatic “thumbs down” vote on a misguided and cynical GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare that would have left millions unable to afford or obtain health insurance.
McCain comes across in “The Restless Wave” as the real deal. He is no maverick when you come right down to it, for he believes in old-fashioned things like this country’s institutions, the rule of law and the truth. He is a hero by any measure. But more than this, he is an exemplary statesman who saw things in the world that needed to be changed and did his best to change them.