I was introduced to war hero Senator John McCain by author David Foster Wallace—through the pages of a book, that is. I knew his name, but I didn’t know his story. One day I picked up a copy of DFW’s Consider the Lobster from my local library and promptly devoured its contents. In the chapter titled “Up, Simba,” DFW writes about the time he was chosen by Rolling Stone magazine to shadow one of the candidates in the 2000 GOP race. That candidate was Senator John McCain.
As I read, I met a heroic prisoner of war whom DWF described as a man of “integrity.” He suggested that Senator McCain might be the one candidate he’s ever come across with a sales pitch that you could actually buy into. DFW went on to suggest that McCain’s time in a North Vietnamese prison might make it easier to believe that, “His causes may be greater than self-interest.”
DFW’s account of Senator McCain’s time as a POW in Vietnam is nothing short of compelling. It’s hard to believe that there are those who don’t know the story, but it happened like this. In 1967, a younger John McCain was flying during a Vietnam mission when his plane was shot down over enemy territory. He acted quickly and violently ejected himself from the plane, breaking both arms, a leg and suffering a concussion. He hadn’t even hit the ground yet. He landed hard in a lake, where he was soon surrounded by Vietnamese men intent on stripping him of his freedom. They pulled him to land and nearly beat him to death before taking him to Hoa Lo Prison. Reports have stated he suffered multiple broken limbs before even reaching the prison. He desperately needed medical treatment.
In such a state, you would think that self-interest would override every other thought or feeling on a grand level. You would think the last thing one would do in this situation is play by the rules and put the needs of others in front of your own. But he did just that. At one point Senator McCain was offered an early release and shocked everyone by turning it down. The United States Military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War said that POWs were to be released in the order of capture. A battered, broken and emaciated McCain stood up and refused to leave without the other POWs. His wish was denied and his heroic act cost him a re-broken arm, more broken limbs, and knocked out teeth. He remained in prison for four more years before his release.
I was too young to vote back in 2000 when I first heard of Senator McCain. I was 14 and boy crazy. Politics were the last thing on my mind. But I remember him. He was everywhere. As I matured, I began to expand my horizons beyond the Backstreet Boys and Sweet Valley High books, and I uncovered an interest in politics. I learned that I lean to the left. When I voted for the first time, it was for President Obama, who was running against Senator McCain in the 2008 presidential election. McCain’s expression didn’t align with my spirit. My unflattering opinion of him softened a little after he corrected a woman in the audience of a campaign rally after she called his opponent, President Obama, an “Arab.” In her mind, being Arab was dirty and something to fear. He calmly took the mic from her and defended him calling him a “good man” amid boos from the crowd. Instantly, he earned my respect.
The feeling grew after reading Wallace’s book years later. I didn’t agree with most, if any, of his political ideology, so the admiration I had for him baffled me. Being a Democrat, I felt a little dirty. Like I was rolling around with the enemy—betraying my own. In fact, every now and then he would take a stance on something that I opposed, but the respect remained. I felt like a walking contradiction, but eventually I deciphered the conundrum. The idea of being open to someone from the opposing side is almost always met with a passionate no. This was me. It’s hard to recondition the mind from what we’ve become accustom to, especially our beliefs. This is how things like blindly supporting those within your chosen party regardless of speech, morals, or 3 a.m. tweets, come to pass. Once the mind is made up, physiologically it struggles with the task of processing information that goes against what we want to believe and what we already believe. I believe in the agenda of Democrats, not Republicans. But John McCain, the maverick, was the exception.
You can imagine my dismay when I heard the news on July 25, 2017 that Senator McCain chose party over politics when he voted yes to begin debating on Obamacare repeal. I was disappointed. A huge contrast from the sympathy and concern I felt for him days prior after learning of his cancer diagnosis. The same man who vowed to vote against Trumpcare voted yes on the Senate floor, and I had to believe it because it was on camera. It wasn’t so much that he went against his word that let me down, it was knowing that the man who had the courage and the fortitude to refuse his own release from a bone-breaking hell to aid his fellow man voted yes to a bill that would hurt many a fellow man.
A yes vote to repeal Obamacare will separate millions from vital health care, but according to Idaho Republican Representative, Raul Labrador, “Nobody dies because they don’t have health care.” Yes, he actually said this. Google it. It’s challenging to respect someone like Labrador, who’s lacking the adequate amount of brain cells needed to carry out the action of critical thinking. He’s the type with an agenda that smacks of self-interest. And last Tuesday, on the Senate floor, McCain seemed to dwell in the space of self-interest proving his former shadow, David Foster Wallace, wrong.
July 28, 2017 changed things. During the vote for the Senate’s “skinny repeal” proposal that would take health care away from millions of Americans, McCain flipped the script and with a pointed thumb down voted no. His vote may or may not have been the determining factor, but it helped millions of Americans keep their health insurance allowing parents to take their kids to the hospital when needed.
McCain’s about face Friday could help dry erase some of the red marks now covering his legacy. I don’t think that’s why he did what he did. It seems like he bowed down to power and regretted doing so. He came back and courageously did the right thing. This is the man I grew to respect ― the Republican war hero whose politics I almost never agree with. The guy who stands up for what he believes in and walks off leaving the room aghast. I’m a proud Democrat, but I will always give credit where credit is due. Tainted image or not. However, John McCain is still sleeping on the couch to me. But after Friday, I may give him a pillow and a blanket. Maybe.