Remembering John McCain

Yes, I recognize that there is something tasteless about eulogizing someone who’s still breathing, but I don’t want to wait for the story to get any worse.

McCain’s bizarre outbursts over the repeal of the military’s policy against gays serving openly in the military are leaving supporters like me scratching their heads. For years McCain painted himself as a traditional, Goldwater libertarian on most culture-war issues. In 2006 he made the bold, though perhaps still somewhat coy statement that he wouldn’t block repeal of the ridiculous, perfectly Clintonian “don’t ask don’t tell” compromise from the ’90’s if the military recommended it.

Now, with a Republican Secretary of Defense backing repeal and a report showing broad acceptance in the ranks, he is reversing his position on this issue and blowing his top in outrageous displays over numerous others. That would be fine if he was making any sense. But, frankly I can hardly follow his sentences anymore.

It pains me to admit it, but John McCain, the guy who a decade ago reignited my faith in politics and inspired me to stay engaged in this ugly busy, is degenerating into an ornery old codger. I volunteered in his campaigns. I gave him money. I made calls for him. I took my kids to see him speak. His sad descent is incredibly personally depressing.

McCain was once the focus of my hopes for the Republican Party. I clung to those hopes long after his promise began to fade. There’s nothing I can say for the man anymore.

The spectacle of McCain arguing with the General who serves as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether soldiers will be weirded out by showering with gay servicemen is punctuated by one stark fact – all over the world today, straight soldiers and gay soldiers are showering together. Gays can and do serve in the military. But because of this idiotic policy no one is allowed to talk about it and the military can’t openly adapt to that reality.

But let’s not get bogged down in DADT, because McCain’s breakdown is much larger than this one issue. Even in the 2008 campaign he was dangerously erratic. It was bold to imagine that he could choose former Democrat Joe Liebermann as his running mate. It was erratic and irresponsible to fail to prepare for the backlash his proposed selection would create. The result was a last minute pick, rammed down his throat, of a dizzy, celebrity-seeking opportunist who will likely continue to embarrass the Party for decades.

And then came the move to suspend the campaign, his campaign’s private spats with Palin and his continuing public refusal to acknowledge his disastrous mistake.

This is the same guy who had the brass balls to stand up the Bush Machine in 2000 and very nearly took him down. Imagine how our world might be different if a younger, more sober McCain had been the nominee that year.

What if we could be led by a guy who never took himself too seriously, who understood irony and absurdity, who treated opponents with respect. Imagine how the Republican Party might be different if a man who had publically called out the Fundamentalist Movement and criticized the continued use of the Confederate Flag had led our Party. Imagine the damage we could have avoided.

Did the 2000 loss make him cynical? Did it cost him his faith in the system? What on Earth has been unfolding in his head over the last decade? We may never know. He seldom speaks candidly about anything anymore.

I wonder, is this what it feels like to be an Obama supporter?

We’re still treated to the occasional flash of the old Maverick, but it’s only enough to leave you missing what used to be. McCain’s evocative floor speech a few weeks ago recognizing the election defeat and departure from the Senate of his Democratic friend, Russ Feingold, was a notable reminder of what the McCain brand once stood for. It would be nice to see more of that, but the era of political leaders who stand for something larger than a political Party seems to be over. Worse, I can’t see anyone waiting in the wings with the courage to take on that challenge.

But I shouldn’t be so grim. Eight Republican Senators had the moxie to buck the threats from fundamentalist groups and take a sensible, pragmatic stand on DADT. Those Senators are:

Richard Burr, NC

Mark Kirk, IL

Lisa Murkowski, AK (doesn’t she qualify as an Independent now?)

Scott Brown, MA

George Voinovich, OH

Olympia Snowe, ME

Susan Collins, ME

John Ensign, NV

We’ll miss the old John McCain and the vision he once represented. But there is always hope.

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