John McCain is dying. Fond memories of his legacy are dying too.
The Arizona senator has long portrayed himself as a political maverick. For the most part, the media has pushed that narrative, characterizing an independent Republican in a party full of conservative zombies. The New Yorker and Washington Post, among many others, called him a hero.
But McCain’s reputation doesn’t line up with the historical facts of his political career. And the internet is catching on to the discrepancy.
Critical examinations of McCain’s problematic political career began last summer when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Freelance reporter Eoin Higgins wrote one such piece for The Outline, titled “You Can Feel Bad About John McCain’s Cancer And Still Hate His Legacy.” Higgins describes John McCain as a warmonger who’s consistently voted along with Republican presidents, even ones he had reasons to personally dislike, like George W. Bush or Donald Trump. As Higgins put it, “Independence in rhetoric, though not in practice, has defined McCain’s career.”
Higgins believes the senator’s multiple bizarre and contradictory statements during Senate meetings over the years dinged his reputation before that. The peak was McCain’s incoherent line of questioning during the James Comey hearing about a month before his cancer announcement.
“I feel that kind of contradictory talk and rambling behavior served to make people understand that this guy had always kind of been full of it,” Higgins says. “In the year before he announced that he had brain cancer, you could tell there was something off about him.”
Combine those ramblings with McCain’s behavior toward Donald Trump, and the maverick mask is long gone. Trump has disrespected McCain repeatedly, clowning the senator’s military service by saying he prefers “people who don’t get captured.” McCain has countered with tough statements about the president but has voted along with Trump’s legislation more than 80 percent of the time.
But that overt hypocrisy hasn’t stopped legacy media and fellow politicians from waxing poetic about McCain’s career. His part in the Keating Five scandal is conveniently forgotten, along with his long history of stubborn racism. He perfectly fits the image of an upstanding conservative, someone who prioritizes political decency over partisanship. They fondly remember his “classiness,” including the time he assured a supporter that Barack Obama was “not an Arab” (a statement that, as Higgins points out in his piece, is inherently racist). And as soon as it became clear McCain’s days were numbered, it was time to remind the American public of how great he was.
“Once [McCain] was diagnosed with brain cancer, everyone starting wailing and gnashing their teeth,” Higgins says. “[It was] as if they were losing some great statesman who was the pinnacle of everything they built up, even though what they built up wasn’t true.”
The media consistently exalts politicians upon their death, regardless of who they hurt or what they said during their time in office. Despite presiding over Iran-Contra, Ronald Reagan is still heralded as one of the greatest presidents of all-time. Margaret Thatcher, a supporter of brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet whose death prompted celebrations in the U.K., was hailed by media as a “champion of freedom and democracy” upon her death.
The ruling class believes that speaking well of the recently departed is “the right thing to do.” But it’s really borne out of the desire to uphold American institutions and portray the people that guide them as good and just.
The internet age has brought about media that isn’t committed to that lofty-but-misguided idea. That’s a good thing because the truth is many American politicians are cruel and promote policies directly harmful to Americans and others around the world. And when they do, they should be exposed as hateful frauds, regardless of how sick or dead they are.