McCain’s deepest idealism, which he reserves for nato and the defense of the West, is not much shared in the Republican Party now, subsumed as it is by Trump and nationalist retrenchment.
.. the homage has been so personal that it has obscured the political matters of why the President continues to make an enemy of him, and of what conservatism will lose when McCain is gone.
.. “I’ve worked for him for thirty years, I’ve listened to him so much. I can impersonate the guy,” Salter said. “In terms of pop-culture sensibility, it’s more Rat Pack—kind of smart-ass, a little bit of a wiseguy. But he can also be quite sentimental. He’s like a romantic cynic. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It comes out of this grand-gesture sensibility.”
.. He’s seen the very worst that humanity can produce and he expects it at any moment. And it gives him a sensibility—that’s why he can identify with these hopeless causes in Belorussia or wherever. He knows how to hold on to hope when it’s for suckers.”
.. I asked what, for McCain, had been the worst moment of Trump’s ascendance. “The Khans,” Salter said.
.. the event that stuck with him most, Salter said, was a reënlistment and naturalization ceremony that David Petraeus held in Iraq on the Fourth of July, in 2007, for soldiers who had yet to become citizens. “And there were two pairs of boots on two chairs,” Salter said. “Two guys who were about to become citizens but they were killed that week. And he’s told me that story a hundred times and he cries every time he tells that story. Petraeus had some line—‘They died for their country before it was their country.’ It was like a gut punch to him. That’s who the Khans’ son was to him.”
.. McCain spent the months after Trump’s Inauguration on an international reassurance tour, telling overseas allies the story that some Republicans in Washington were telling themselves—that Trump’s authoritarianism would be constrained by those around him, that this was a phase that would pass. “He has a lot of faith in Mattis,”
.. McCain, without naming the President, delivered a broadside against Putin, Trump, and the national retrenchments across the West that struck some valedictory notes. “I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries,” McCain said. “I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West, and I believe we must always, always stand up for it.”
.. “That speech was really, ‘Hey, this thing we’ve done together is the greatest thing an alliance of nations has ever done in history. Be proud of it. It’s worth preserving. Don’t give up on us.’ ” Of course the nativism he so despised had taken hold of his own political party, and his choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential nominee marked an obvious pivot toward Trumpism.
.. It fell to Salter and Rick Davis, another longtime aide, to inform McCain: “We told him, ‘If you get the flu, you’re not going to survive it, John.’ ”
.. By the late nineties, journalists had the outline of the character: the war hero possessed by regrets. “One of the traits McCain’s staff finds most maddening in their boss is his tendency to recall for journalists only his most damning moments,” Michael Lewis wrote, in 1997. “Ask him about Vietnam and he’ll tell you about the time he stole a washrag from the guy in the adjoining cell. Ask him about his first marriage and he’ll leap right to his adultery.”
.. Conservatives could celebrate the extremity of McCain’s patriotism, and liberals could detect a recognition that war breaks men.
.. McCain’s story was one small way that Americans reconciled themselves to the waste and failure of Vietnam, and it was this reconciliation that Trump went after when he said his own war heroes were the men who hadn’t been captured. Trump imagines war without suffering, which leaves no room for McCain.
.. The closest thing that McCain has to an heir is the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who is a former military lawyer and shares McCain’s faith in American power, but who is also a more conventional partisan figure and has at times sided with Trump (including, most recently, about his decision to revoke the security clearance of former C.I.A. director John Brennan).
.. “Lindsey really believes,” Salter said. “But he always makes a joke of it—‘We’ve got to get out of here, they’re going to kill us.’ ”
I said, trying to get the contrast between McCain and Graham right, “So McCain’s the more—”
Salter cut me off. He said, “The more romantic.”