Illness, Death, Legacy, and Heroes

Senator John McCain is ill. That is a sad state of affairs for Senator John McCain and his family.

No illness is any more than that, really, but that doesn’t keep us from conflating high profile mortality with something greater. Upon hearing the news, some took to social media to demonstrate how their compassion transcends bipartisanship: “I rarely agree with McCain, but I admire him.” Others, not so much. Individuals at either end of the political spectrum took ghoulish joy in attributing the senator’s brain tumor to karma or God’s will. These made for a rather confusing social media feed: McCain was being punished by a supernatural power for being simultaneously too conservative and not conservative enough.

Most articles, essays, and social media posts stuck to the safe middle that is reserved for such announcements: McCain is a fighter. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. If anybody can beat this thing, it’s tougher-than-nails John McCain. These are the sorts of mantras we chant when confronted with mortality because we fear that we’re next. For the same reason, obituaries consistently cite the “heroic battle” the departed fought.

It’s salve on an emotional wound. Death is tough on the survivors, and if framing end of life as a heroic battle takes a little of the edge off, there’s no harm in that. But the real heroes at end of life are the caregivers: the spouses, parents, children, friends, and others who put their own lives on hold for an indeterminate amount of time to devote themselves 100 percent to the infirmed. They handle the horrendous bureaucracy of the modern health care system, cook the meals, manage the house, administer the meds, change the dressings, care for the wounds, clean up the bodily fluids, and project the unflagging hope that no one actually feels. You’re a fighter. You’ll beat this thing. And they do it all while choking down the overwhelming sense of dread that if they close their eyes for even a moment they’ll awaken to a corpse. Heroes, every one of them.

I don’t want that for my children. Sometimes the thought of burdening them like that overwhelms me. Nor do I want to die in some ward where I’m the patient in bed number seven who won’t shut the hell up. What is he moaning about, anyway? Just let go already, old man, we need the bed space. Hopefully I have a few decades left to figure out a reasonable exit.

When public figures–particularly politicians–face mortality, we’re expected to reassess our opinions of them. We long ago collectively agreed that we don’t speak ill of the dead in this culture, and so the departed are recast as more saintly than they really were: Kennedy wasn’t really a womanizer; Nixon wasn’t so bad; Reagan hung the moon. There’s nothing wrong with that impulse, provided that we all understand that manners and facts aren’t the same thing.

And speaking of our opinions of public figures–particularly politicians–we too often confuse their job performance with their characters. Both George W. Bush’s and Jimmy Carter’s presidencies were failures by most measures, but that doesn’t mean that either is a bad man. Similarly, Bill Clinton was a good president when judged solely by metrics like unemployment, the deficit, etc., but that neither confirms nor disproves that he is a good man.

So it goes with John McCain, who undoubtedly is loved by his family and friends, and held in high regard by his colleagues. I have no reason (nor desire) to question that he is a good man. He dedicated most of his life to public service, from his much-cited service in the military through important and bipartisan legislation like the McCain Feingold Act. For the overwhelming majority of his life, John McCain tried to make the world a better place. Whether I agree with his view of “better” is immaterial.

In 2008, something went terribly wrong with the senator’s moral compass. This was the year that presidential candidate McCain betrayed what seemed to be a bulletproof integrity. In what can only be described as a cynical, hail Mary ploy for the White House, the Maverick hitched his wagon to Sarah Palin. History might remember that decision as the flashpoint that gave rise to the polarized and dysfunctional politics of the early 21st century. Without McCain’s validation of the new far-right’s willful ignorance, movements like the Tea Party and Make America Great Again may never have gained mainstream footholds.

Watching the man of integrity grapple with the disaster he unleashed was painful. Over the next eight years, the old McCain would occasionally emerge, maybe never more so than in this clip from the 2008 campaign:

But with increasing frequency after that failed campaign, the senator embraced (or at the very least mimicked) the new conservative platform, doubling down on the damage that he himself had done to the nation with his tacit endorsement of the Tea Party movement via Sarah Barracuda. In short, the denouement of John McCain’s life of public service is an eight year period marked by undoing whatever good he had done over his first 70 years.

I do not wish ill upon John McCain. I wish him a heroic battle, and I hope that he is surrounded by an army of heroes who love and care for him. That doesn’t change the facts, though. He’s a fighter, but he won’t beat this thing. Jim Morrison knew at 25 years old what we all deny well into our golden years: No one gets out of here alive.

Nor does it change the fact that the Maverick opened a Pandora’s Box during his 2008 campaign that will ripple across decades. I can’t bring myself to rewrite his legacy to suit a cultural norm any more than I can pretend Nixon was okay because he opened up China.

Categories: op-ed

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