John McCain was born for this moment. Will he seize it?
President-elect Donald Trump epitomizes everything the US senator from Arizona said he abhorred back when McCain was making his first run for the Oval Office: low-down campaign tactics; incitements to hatred; cozying up to authoritarians; derision for the ideals for which the senator, as a young Navy pilot at war, was prepared to die.
Times were simpler during that free-wheeling run in 2000. McCain was mostly a conventional Republican, policywise. It was his character that drew people to him, his absolute certainty about right and wrong. Covering his campaign, sitting on a bus with him day after day, I worried about what kind of president he’d be, but I never doubted his integrity.
“I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land,” he said after losing the South Carolina primary. “Never. Never. never.”
He lost, in part, because of the low-down tactics of eventual nominee George W. Bush and his supporters, gambits that prefigured this year’s nihilistic free-for-all: false allegations that he was the biological father of the Bangladeshi child he adopted with his wife, Cindy; that Cindy was a drug addict; that McCain had become a traitor in Vietnam, where he was held prisoner and tortured for five years. The pain it all caused his family was palpable.
The world had changed when McCain was the GOP nominee in 2008 and, it seemed, so had he. He stepped away from, even reversed, some of his signature positions. His allowed low blows at opponent Barack Obama and made some himself. He gave us Sarah Palin. Lord, Sarah Palin. And a terrifying anger crept into his rallies, including the occasional call for Obama’s assassination. The signal moment came when McCain took the microphone back from a woman who said Obama was an Arab and she was afraid of him. “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man,” McCain said. The crowd booed him. It wasn’t very far from there to here.
McCain didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but it’s safe to assume he is appalled by much of what the president-elect has done so far. The appointment of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser alone likely has McCain turning inside out with anger: Flynn’s willingness to peddle in conspiracy theories reveals a slender grasp of reality. Then there is Trump’s determination to make friends with Vladimir Putin, whom McCain despises.
So far, most Republicans in Congress are utterly invertebrate, unwilling to speak out against Trump for fear of imperiling their dreams of blowing up Obamacare and cutting taxes for the wealthy. But we’ve seen flashes of the maverick McCain. A week after the election, he came out against the president-elect’s friendly talk on Russia, saying it would mean “complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people.” At a recent security forum, he said, “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. . . . We will not waterboard.” This week, he penned an op-ed saying Trump’s anti-global stance was dangerous to the US economy. “It is a fool’s errand to try to recreate a mythical time when Fortress America was impregnable,” McCain wrote.
Backbone like that is all that stands between us and the abyss. But McCain seems reluctant to show it consistently. When a reporter began asking him about Trump on Tuesday, McCain interrupted: “I’m not talking about Trump. I’m not talking about Trump. . . . I don’t know how many times I have to tell you.”
Maybe he’s picking his battles. Maybe he’s decided his criticisms have less power if he makes them too often. Maybe he’s feeling the pressure.
But this is the moment for which the McCain I knew was born. If he steps up here, he will embolden other Republicans to do the same. And he will go down in history as one of the nation’s great political heroes.
He is 80 now, and unlikely to run for office again. In his twilight, he can be a beacon. The finest hour in his long and storied life begins now. He has nothing left to lose.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.