John McCain always said he’d go down fighting, and so he has, dickering from his deathbed over CIA nominee Gina Haspel and pre-emptively disinviting President Donald Trump from his funeral, then leaving as a legacy some fierce final words for the leader of his party, who is now a political enemy. All Trump displays is “a reality-show facsimile of toughness,” the six-term Arizona senator and former GOP presidential candidate, who for a generation of Washington politicians has defined genuine toughness, writes in his forthcoming memoir.
The irony of McCain’s curtain-closing contretemps with the president is that it is clearly Trump himself who has inherited McCain’s mantle as the leading Republican maverick in Washington. Both men have often taken on the party orthodoxy across an array of big issues, with Trump running as the ultimate populist outsider in 2016 and spouting apostasies on trade, immigration and foreign policy; and McCain doing so on just about everything at one point or another during his long career. Both are known for being irascible and often bad-tempered, and unsparing toward enemies and rivals, even in their own party. Indeed, during McCain’s first run for president in 2000 he managed to enlist only a handful of his 53 Senate Republican colleagues to support him over George W. Bush, and some cited his volcanic anger and congenital impatience (traits that McCain insists he has since reined in) as reasons. As one GOP senator told me back then, “I didn’t want this guy anywhere near a trigger.” The two politicians even share some views on the proper use of American force in the world and the perils of palliative diplomacy—McCain opposed the Iran nuclear deal as fiercely as Trump, for one.
The similarities, however, probably end there. McCain is widely admired on both sides of the aisle for his guts, integrity, humor and style, and—whether they thought him right or wrong—no one has ever questioned that he acted out of anything but patriotism and passion. Certainly it was never entertained—as it is almost daily in Washington about Trump—that McCain was mainly motivated by self-aggrandizement. Trump regularly fulminates against anyone he considers disloyal to him personally (one reason he is said to hate McCain); McCain has reserved his ire mainly for those he considers disloyal to his country’s interests. And while McCain can be scatologically harsh about his political rivals behind closed doors—sometimes to their faces—he has often been eloquently magnanimous in public, for example praising the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy as “probably the greatest antagonist I ever had on the floor of the Senate” and someone who “dedicated his life to the institution.” McCain became, throughout his career, the embodiment of the noble nonconformist on the Hill, the politician who was all too willing to sacrifice party loyalty to do what he thought was right for the country, to do so loudly and consistently, and to fearlessly pronounce everyone, including the occupant of the Oval Office, dead wrong if they disagreed with him.
It’s become a cliché to label McCain a “maverick” for his dramatic, and increasingly frequent, breaks with the Republican Party line. But it’s a cliché because the label fits: Over nearly four decades in Washington, McCain has given a master class in maverickism, and it is for this he will be most remembered. So it is fitting, perhaps that the inveterate fighter is taking on Trump—another Republican politician who rose by bucking GOP orthodoxy—in his final battle, and bequeathing to the nation a bookful of advice on how to be the right kind of maverick. To Trump, McCain writes in his new memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations, the mere appearance of toughness “seems to matter more than any of our values.” He suggests the president is jeopardizing those values by undermining the free press with regular accusations of “fake news”—a tactic “copied by autocrats,” McCain writes—supporting torture, branding immigrants criminals and opening the door to moral equivalence with Vladimir Putin by saying, “We have a lot of killers too.” That, McCain writes, “was a shameful thing to say, and so unaware of reality.”