John McCain was a white American man, whose whiteness and Americanness and maleness were his most prominent and predictable characteristics. He was also considered to be a hero. Barack Obama spoke on McCain’s “courage to put the greater good above our own.” Joe Biden remarked that McCain’s life was “proof that some truths are timeless.” There are many other tributes like this from many other prominent American and international figures, each extolment more gracious and fawning than the last, fitting for a man who put his life on the line for his country as a young man and then, for his remaining years on Earth, continued to serve it.
This sort of veneration will likely be the legacy that prevails when he’s regarded by history. I do not disagree with it. He was, in the context of whiteness, in the context of Americaness, in the context of maleness, and in the context of what those things fused together are intended to mean, a hero.
That McCain is considered and will continue to be considered heroic is less a way of synopsizing his life and more a testimony on whiteness and Americanness and maleness. Or, more accurately, an indictment. And we do not have to look further than the very recent past for proof. We know, for instance, that despite his conspicuous animus for President Trump and the type of nasty, dishonorable, and cowardly Americanness Trump represents—an Americanness that John McCain considered himself above—he was so aligned politically with this man he detested that he voted with him 83 percent of the time. And we know that his choice to select the squirrelly and thick-witted Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 paved the way for Trump’s ascension, the way a fart leads way to a shit.
There were many other decisions like this; careful and measured political choices that aligned McCain with what was (and is) the status quo for white American men. There was his dogmatic support of the Iraq War. Which, to be fair, he later admitted was a mistake. But, as Splinter’s Paul Blest articulated, he didn’t seem to learn many lessons from it.
Despite recognizing that this adventure in regime change which helped to destabilize an entire region and resulted in the deaths of well over a million people was a “mistake,” however, McCain decided not to take the lessons of that colossal failure with him. He continued his nearly career-long desire for a war with Iran by praising President Donald Trump’s “strategy” in sabotaging the Iran nuclear deal.
There’s also his support of Neil Gorsuch, coming not long after he pledged to block anyone Hillary Clinton would have chosen. And, in keeping with his practice of following the lead of his arch-nemesis, he voted for Trump’s tax bill.
These were just a few acts from a political career that spanned six decades, and you can argue that I’m cherry-picking, which I am. But these are acts from the evolved portion of his life. This is from the kindler and gentler McCain, not the McCain who voted against MLK Day in 1983, and also against the Civil Rights Act in 1990. And not the McCain who was against abortion rights. (Oops, sorry. That last one is still the same McCain.)
But, John McCain was a white American man. And from what we know of white American men, most are aligned with Donald Trump politically, even if they harbor a distaste for him personally. Most were behind his choice of Palin, even if that meant placing a nincompoop in the Oval Office, because she represented the best chance of preventing Barack Obama from sitting there.
Of course, McCain’s story cannot and should not be told without placing his military history at the top of the bio. What he did as a pilot and then as a prisoner was, in an America context and from an America perspective, heroic. He was, for better and worse, a real-life John Wayne character. But while his record as a solider earned him a certain type of respect, McCain is so lovingly regarded by many today because of the few times in his political life he decided to be human instead of just white, to be empathetic instead of just American, to be compassionate instead of just a man.
Nothing John McCain did as a politician better exemplifies the adherence to the specific brand of quaggy honor one is able to reach when both feet are firmly planted in a fealty to whiteness than his oft-cited public defense of Barack Obama. The clip of McCain confronting and correcting a woman who accused Obama of being an Arab has become so essential to the mythology of McCain that the GIF should air on a recurring loop at his funeral. It was, also, a synopsizing snapshot of the stealthy mundanity of whiteness. Which is essentially a ceaseless reiteration of stone-throwing and hand-hiding.
In McCain’s case—and in countless similar cases of white people who lived before and will continue to live after him—he was fine with encouraging and taking advantage of the atmosphere that othered the candidate with the strange name and the dark skin. He was fine blowing whichever dog whistles were necessary to articulate that he was the American candidate. The true candidate. The legitimate candidate. His campaign slogan, after all, was Country First—which, when juxtaposed against a man whose citizenship was in question, means ... well, you know what it means. Only after this genteel racism became racism racism—only after his dignified white sensibilities were offended—did he object. (And even said objection possessed a white-identifying flaccidity.)
This, of course, is de rigueur for white supremacy to exist in America concurrently with the belief that (white) Americans are singularly just and moral and fair and right. It requires people like John McCain to be agents of it and cheerleaders for it and then, when an arbitrary decency threshold is crossed, to tighten its leash.
To McCain’s credit, leash tighteners are rare. And because it’s so uncommon for white American men to, even for a second, stand up and place the needs of those less privileged and more vulnerable than them above their own, he was unpredictable. He was a maverick. He was the ideal white American man—a person whose quintessential whiteness, Americanness and maleness dictated his life, but was also human occasionally, too. And this, I guess, made him an American hero.