As John McCain moved toward the end of his terminal illness, I thought about how I would write about him when he died. I have been a great admirer of McCain’s but also a frequent and sometimes vociferous critic. When someone dies we should focus on the best things we can say about them. But we should, especially after a respectful interval, account for the fullness not only of their lives but the fullness of what we said about them while they lived. This isn’t simply a matter of not glorifying someone in death beyond what they merited in life. It’s also a matter of holding ourselves accountable.
The commentaries on his life have either praised McCain’s unique virtues or pointed out all the ways he never lived up to his billing. For me, the most interesting question to ask is what made McCain such a towering figure in our public life in the first place. Here I mean the term not in an evaluative but in a strictly descriptive sense. He was a towering figure, whether we think he should have been or not. McCain did not have a particularly lengthy or distinguished legislative record. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law is a critical part of his public reputation. But it’s one law and it’s largely been washed away by Citizens United. Senators are not only legislators. They also have a specific constitutional responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs. The scion of a distinguished military family, that was clearly his real passion. But the invasion of Iraq, the defense and national security decision he is probably most closely tied to — both before and after 9/11 — is now widely seen as a mistake of catastrophic and historic proportions, a fact even he conceded by the end of his life.
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