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Thursday, June 08, 2023

The complex legacy of John McCain

Politicians make a career out of high-stakes decisions. Sometimes those decisions turn out well, and other times they have devastating consequences. After a public servant dies, there is usually a period of time when their record is discussed by the public, and we all try to determine how we should feel about their legacy: Did they use their position to create positive change, or did they cause more harm than good?

After Senator John McCain’s passing on August 25th, a clip from his 2008 presidential campaign began making the rounds on social media. At a rally, a woman came up to McCain and said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not — he’s an Arab.” Before she could get any further, McCain swiftly took the microphone and declared Obama “a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is about.”

The video is almost cringe-inducing. When McCain suggests to the crowd they need not be afraid of an Obama presidency, they respond with hisses and murmurs of disapproval. McCain falters for a moment but does not back down. This was just one of several moments that became popular after McCain’s passing.

After years of intense partisanship and disagreement, it appeared that both Democrats and Republicans were willing to hold up similar moments from the senator’s life as an example of what a politician should aspire to be. Even political rivals released statements saying that while they might have fiercely disagreed with McCain politically, they respected his bravery as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years, his reputation as a maverick and his general human decency.

All was not well, however. Some contested that McCain’s other decisions during his tenure made him undeserving of such praise. He was reported to be quick to anger, so much that during the 2008 run other members of Congress said his temperament made him unsuitable for the job. His tendency to be a foreign policy “hawk,” which led him to be the first senator to push for the disastrous war in Iraq, is a permanent scar on his legacy.

What can be learned from Senator McCain’s life, death and the reaction to both?

The immediate hero worship of a man who was not perfect troubled people of various political affiliations. It seems wrong to praise a man who pushed for military actions that led to the unnecessary deaths of so many Americans. But even in death, Senator McCain tried to prove a point about the kind of person he wanted to be remembered as when he invited two former presidents, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, to speak at his funeral.

Perhaps the total of bad things McCain supported overshadows the good things he has done. In our society, deciding whether a person was “good” or “bad” is very important so that we know how to associate ourselves with them. A person’s choices, especially for a political figure like McCain, will be weighed differently by different people. For some, casting the no vote that would finally defeat the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act was enough to permanently make McCain one of the good guys; for others it could not possibly repair his past actions.

It’s easy to conclude that McCain is a role model politician given the less-than-stellar example that other members of the Republican party have been setting lately. Really, his record is just as flawed as many other American political figures. Each decision he made as a senator should be evaluated in its own context.

Defending the character of his opponent during a presidential campaign was a moment worthy of praise. Maybe some of his other decisions were not. Either way, putting people on a pedestal tends not to end well. It is better to acknowledge that good and bad exists in each person.

Izzy is a sophomore studying political science. What do you think about the political legacy of John McCain? Send your questions and comments to us at

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