Is John McCain’s death proving to be just as divisive as he was in life?

PUBLISHED: 20:00 30 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:25 31 August 2018

Republican presidential candidate John McCain pauses during his speech at a

Republican presidential candidate John McCain pauses during his speech at a "Joe the Plumber" campaign rally in Sarasota, Florida on October 23, 2008. McCain is on a six-stop, one-day "Joe the Plumber" bus tour across central Florida to meet with small business owners. AFP PHOTO Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

2008 AFP

Following the death of John McCain mainstream media has been flooded with tributes to America’s war hero. But further into the blogosphere, Senator McCain’s death is proving just as divisive as he was, writes Mitch Benn

US Republican Presidential Candidate Senator John McCain speaks during a rally in Davenport, Iowa.  (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US Republican Presidential Candidate Senator John McCain speaks during a rally in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The news of the sad, but not unexpected, passing of senator John McCain has been marked, in the ‘official’ or mainstream news media at least, with heartfelt tributes to his heroism and endurance as a prisoner of war, his fortitude in office and, especially, the gracious manner in which he swallowed what must have been a truly crushing disappointment upon conceding defeat in the 2008 presidential election.

Wade a little further into the mire of social media and the blogosphere, however, and it seems that the old scrapper is proving to be as divisive a figure in death as he was in life.

Some less forgiving commentators are flagging up McCain’s relentlessly hawkish interventionism, his unquestioning cheerleading for the highly questionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and apparent enthusiasm for the idea of war with Iran) and, moreover, his eager support for the slew of illiberal homeland legislation which followed 9/11.

Others have pointed out the truism that merely finding yourself in opposition to the Bad Guy does not, in and of itself, make you the Good Guy. And that is true even if the Bad Guy in question is one as cartoonishly villainous as Donald J Trump.

Indeed, while it has been refreshing to watch McCain (perhaps cognisant of having literally nothing to lose) being one of the very few Republicans willing to be a thorn in the ample flesh of the current president (one can’t help but compare McCain’s obstreperousness with the depressingly craven attitude of his good friend Lyndsey Graham), there’s a none-too-fanciful case to be made that, in the classical tradition of a flawed hero inadvertently spawning his own nemesis, it was McCain’s selection as running mate, a decade ago, of the telegenic but stultifyingly ignorant and narcissistic Sarah Palin, which set the Republican Party into the fame-over-substance ego-worshipping spiral which made the rise of Trump inevitable.

It’s perhaps emblematic of the controversial nature of McCain’s legacy that the same bit of news footage is being cited by his eulogisers as an example of his tolerance and openness, and by his detractors as evidence of his intolerance.

I’m sure you’ve seen the clip; it’s taken from a presidential election rally the then-candidate McCain held in October 2008. An elderly lady, invited to speak, takes the mic and in a quavering voice says, “I can’t trust Obama... he’s an Arab.” There’s a moment’s awkward silence, which McCain seizes upon to reply: “No ma’am, he’s not... He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.”

Now it is of course true that to reply to the assertion “he’s an Arab” with the response, “no he’s not, he’s a decent man,” is, if you’re going to be forensic about it, a bit racist, implying as it does that “Arab” and “decent man” are mutually exclusive concepts.

And indeed, a few days after this, Colin Powell was to point out in an interview that the correct response to the (then oft-made) accusation “Obama’s a Muslim” would be neither “no he’s not, he’s a Christian,” nor “no he’s not, he’s a good American,” but rather “So what if he is?”

But what neither McCain’s mourners nor critics seem to have put their finger on is precisely why that reply, infelicitously worded as it was, was an example of the kind of political courage which appears to have disappeared from the world in the 10 years since.

What we see in that clip is something we simply do not see any more; a campaigning politician, a few weeks away from the most important election of his life, speaking to a presumed supporter, someone whose vote he is counting on and will need in due course, hearing her concerns, recognising that these concerns are based on misinformation and are, as such, invalid, and then, wonder of wonders, actually saying so.

When was the last time that happened? That rather than pander to their supporters’ sincere, but entirely imaginary tabloid and fake news site-fuelled worries, a politician kindly but firmly explained to those supporters that they’d been misled and were panicking about nothing?

It’s hard to imagine a modern-day Republican candidate responding to a statement like “Obama’s an Arab” with anything other than “hell yes he is, and we’re gonna send him back to Arabland!” before basking in a five-minute standing ovation.

I’ve often wondered if McCain’s decision to confront, rather than humour, that elderly voter’s xenophobia cost him her vote, the votes of many others like her, perhaps even the presidency itself. And I’m sure that question has occurred to every politician who’s seen that clip in the last decade and that this may well be why you don’t catch politicians doing that kind of thing any more.

But I shouldn’t complain; after all, I owe this job to that same epidemic of political cowardice. If David Cameron, back in 2015, faced with defecting MPs and the prospect of the less-than-enthusiastic-about-foreigners rump of the Conservative voter base being lured away by UKIP, rather than choose to indulge and flatter the they-come-over-here contingent by invoking an ill-conceived and unnecessary referendum, had instead had the guts to point out that Britain was not in fact being swamped by swarthy benefit-leeching ne’er-do-wells, or to admit that our society and economy are sustained, rather than undermined, by immigration, or just been brave enough to call out Nigel Farage for the opportunistic self-serving parasite that he was, is, and always will be, then this newspaper wouldn’t exist.

So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

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