Remembering John McCain

The passing of long-serving senator and two-time presidential candidate John McCain on August 25, 2018, spurred discussion in Washington this week. It also illustrates active attempts to shape a legacy and defend it from character assassination. Politicians and pundits use verbal and visual rhetorical strategies to create meaning from McCain’s long career

The news media has hailed McCain as an American hero for enduring torture during the Vietnam war. They have extolled his virtues as a “romantic conservative” who sought compromise in the quest to do what is right. They have praised him as noble and public-minded.

Yet, McCain has a complicated legacy. As Damon Linker writes in This Week, McCain did not take those strong, bipartisan stands often enough. Moreover, his choice of Sarah Palin for running mate gave voice to the right-wing populist tradition in the GOP, and he defended the war in Iraq long after it was clear it was failing.

One reporter pointed out, ‘how will John McCain be remembered’ and ‘how should John McCain be remembered’ are two separate questions. As Martijn Icks shows in last week’s CARP Lab blog post, when prominent figures die, those around them—enemies or friends—have a hand in crafting their public memory. This rhetorical shaping sometimes extends to wholly erasing them from public memory.

President Trump, however, seems recalcitrant to allow McCain’s memory to flourish as the bipartisan compromiser. In an act of nonverbal character assassination, President Trump bucked the trend of flying White House flags at half-staff from the news of a congressperson’s passing until their burial. They were lowered briefly over the weekend, then re-raised. It wasn’t until Monday, two days after McCain’s death, that President Trump issued an order to lower the flags until the funeral, after repeated criticism from the media (and despite repeated attempts to ignore the issue). (Flags at the U.S. Capitol and other government agencies remained at half-staff even after the White House raised their own.)

Trump also failed to issue a statement on the Senator’s death until two days later. The occasion of the Senator’s passing resurrected Trump’s campaign comments calling McCain a “loser” for being captured while in Vietnam. By contrast, media commentators have held up McCain as a symbol of decorum against the foil of the President as a way to assassinate the president.

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Those close to the Senator are shaping his legacy in the plans for the funeral. And many of his colleagues in the Senate are offering their respect, too. His desk was draped in black with white roses on August 28.

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McCain’s supporters are playing up the noble and bipartisan aspects of his public memory through the choice of his eulogizers: Barack Obama and George W. Bush, people to whom McCain lost presidential elections or bids. When the funeral occurs, the resulting visuals will become part of McCain’s legacy that future generations will debate, complicate, and potentially even assassinate.

4 thoughts on “Remembering John McCain

  1. I find the criticism of John McCain by many liberal critics to be somewhat amusing. In many ways, McCain was pretty simple to figure out. He was a strong pro-military, pro-life, small government conservative. On occasion, he bucked his party — on torture, on campaign finance reform, and on comprehensive immigration, for example. But, the rest of the time, McCain was a solid conservative voice in the Senate. Even his famous thumbs down on the repeal of Obamacare had more to do with his call to regular order than any deviation from his campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.

    Thus, those who praised McCain as a “maverick” have over-emphasized his rare deviations from his conservative beliefs. Those disappointed with McCain not being a liberal were not paying attention.

    A large part of the reason that John McCain generated the attention that he did was that he had a good relationship with the press. He was always good for a quote — usually a colorful one — and most often was accessible to reporter (for example, he set a record for appearances on “Meet the Press”). McCain often didn’t like the news coverage he received, but also was a strong supporter of the First Amendment (a stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House). So it is not surprising that the press have played up the “noble and bipartisan” aspects of John McCain’s record rather than drilling down on the less noble and bipartisan aspects of this flawed hero.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree with much of what you said. And I certainly think you’re right that McCain gave the press access in ways many politicians didn’t which generated an incredibly positive view of him on their part.


  2. BTW, I should have been clear in my response. I wasn’t including you, Jennifer, among the liberal critics I referenced. My observations were for those of the folks you linked to (among others). Apologies for any confusion.


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