The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John McCain reflects on his ‘maverick’ past and the future of the country

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling a deadly form of brain cancer, writes in his latest book that now, “I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much.” (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In his closing chapter, the man who has spent a lifetime playing the maverick has gone full Bulworth. “I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again,” writes Sen. John McCain, 81, in “The Restless Wave,” co-authored with Mark Salter, his former chief of staff. “I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much.” In this thoughtful valedictory, he delivers.

Unlike the previous six books McCain and Salter have composed together, this one wasn’t written for voters. It was written for history. In an era of all-caps tweets and angry denunciations of supposed “witch hunts,” the Arizona Republican’s final book, published Tuesday, casts him as a profile in courage. McCain highlights his advocacy for the Iraq troop “surge” when it was toxically unpopular in 2007 and his decisive vote against repealing Obamacare in 2017. He finally tells his side of his 2008 Sarah Palin partnership. With what time he has left, the “maverick” — an appellation he has worn throughout his career, at some times more comfortably than at others — is going to put country first and tell the truth.

He expresses regret that he did not pick Joe Lieberman to be his running mate 10 years ago. His best friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “enthusiastically endorsed the idea” of bringing their colleague, who had been the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, onto “a national unity ticket.” But everyone else in McCain’s circle told him it would fatally divide the GOP. “It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” McCain writes. “But my gut told me to ignore it, and I wish I had.”

McCain attributes the insufficient vetting of Palin, 44 and two years into her first term as Alaska’s governor, to his sulking about not being able to tap Lieberman. Taking the blame for her stumbles, he writes, “She was a skilled amateur performer asked to appear on Broadway twice a day.” I wish he had grappled more fully with the mayhem Palin’s selection created inside the GOP. It laid the groundwork for the ascent of Donald Trump a few years later.

Trump emerges as a bete noire in the book. When McCain after the 2016 elections received a copy of the “dossier,” detailing unverified allegations about the president compiled by an opposition researcher, he immediately turned it over to James Comey so the FBI could explore whether Trump was compromised by the Russians. “Anyone who doesn’t like it can go to hell,” writes McCain.

But he also portrays the president as an outgrowth of tectonic shifts in a party for which, just 10 years ago, he was the standard-bearer. Now he sometimes struggles to recognize it. “Trump seems to vary from refusing to believe what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is doing to just not caring about it,” he frets. “And some House Republicans investigating Russian interference seem more preoccupied with their own conspiracy theories than with a real conspiracy by a foreign enemy to defraud the United States.”

At age 81, and with a cancer diagnosis, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is looking back on his life with immense gratitude. (Video: Reuters)

McCain repeatedly criticizes conservative “talk radio blowhards.” He calls the House Freedom Caucus “the say-no-to-everything crowd.” He says nativists “need to be confronted, not ignored or winked at or quietly dismissed as kooks.” He mocks his 2016 primary challenger, Kelli Ward, for attacking him as “a champion of compromise.” “You’re damn right,” he responds. Former Trump aides Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are “self-proclaimed nationalist radicals.” “Bigger misfits haven’t been seen inside a White House since William Taft got stuck in his bathtub,” he writes.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is another punching bag. The hawkish McCain faults the libertarian for falling prey to a conspiracy theory that he met with representatives of the Islamic State and for putting a hold on a vote to let Montenegro join NATO. Last year, he accused Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin” by opposing the expansion of the alliance. It was “an intemperate thing to say,” McCain now writes. “But it wasn’t incorrect.”

All politicians self-mythologize. This book is an effort to codify McCain’s maverick brand. He puts extra emphasis on his work across the aisle, including a 38-page chapter about working with Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion from Massachusetts, on health care and immigration. He has kind words for other leading Democrats, too, including Hillary Clinton.

Critics say McCain has always been more “straight talk” than action, but sometimes these skeptics, especially on the left, want him to be someone he’s not. McCain admits entertaining the idea of switching parties in 2001, when the Senate was split 50-50 and he still harbored “some hard feelings” about his bitter primary battles with George W. Bush. The Democrats offered him the chance to chair the Armed Services Committee. “I listened and was flattered, but insisted in every conversation that my differences with Democrats were more numerous than those I had with current Republican orthodoxy,” he writes. “After a while they relented.”

McCain says he’s a proud Reagan Republican. “Not a Tea Party Republican,” he writes. “Not a Breitbart Republican. Not a talk radio or Fox News Republican. Not an isolationist, protectionist, immigrant-bashing, scapegoating, get-nothing-useful-done Republican. Not, as I am often dismissed by self-declared ‘real’ conservatives, a RINO, Republican in Name Only.”

Really, though, he’s always been a John McCain Republican. Even Reagan, who he says he “revered,” didn’t always get it right. In the book, McCain touts his 1983 opposition to the deployment of Marines to Beirut and his 1986 vote to override Reagan’s veto of sanctions on the apartheid government in South Africa.

Still, the senator does not really acknowledge that he’s tended to lurch right, including on some signature issues, to win primaries and get reelected. He opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 — but supported extending them in 2006. In 2016, he promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. In 2017, he cast the vote that saved the law.

In other words, McCain’s maverick-iness has ebbed and flowed. He’s mostly been a reliable party-line vote since getting elected to Congress in 1982, but he’s broken with Republicans on a few key issues. He earned the enmity of appropriators in both parties by battling earmarks before that was in vogue, and he clashed with his own party leaders by agitating for campaign finance reform. (His embrace of that cause was a result of his ensnarement in the Keating Five scandal, which almost ended his career and turned him into a reformer.)

He admits to some big mistakes: “The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam [Hussein] had WMD, was wrong,” McCain writes. “The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

As in any memoir, there is score settling — and lots of I-told-you-so’s. McCain faults Barack Obama, his 2008 opponent, for not keeping a residual force in Iraq, for not bombing Syria after Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons and for announcing a timetable to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan.

But the senator’s critique of the current president is more sustained than any other. “For all our disagreements I never doubted President Obama shared the seventy-five-year bipartisan consensus that American leadership of the free world was a moral obligation and a practical necessity,” he writes. “I’m not sure what to make of President Trump’s convictions.”

There are enough strong shots at Trump to get headlines, which sell books, but they’re sprinkled somewhat sparingly throughout. “He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” McCain writes. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”

McCain does not want to be defined by opposition to Trump, who got elected despite declaring in 2015 that McCain was not a war hero because he was captured by the North Vietnamese. He would, however, like to be remembered for his long crusade against torture. He devotes a meaty chapter to the topic and recounts apologizing personally to someone who suffered at the hands of his American captors while in Libya, over the objection of the CIA station chief. He sided with Democrats on the issue after the 9/11 attacks and recently declined to endorse the nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA director, amid concerns about her past role in the agency’s interrogations.

McCain wants to hold that moral high ground, and he’s peeved by any suggestion that he’s not worthy of claiming it. The senator tried to run an honorable campaign in 2008. He forbade his staff from mentioning Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s controversial former pastor. In many ways, this gesture seems much more impressive now — after Trump spent years insisting that Obama was born in Kenya and demanding to see his birth certificate.

With that in mind, McCain reveals some of the charges against him that have rankled most. He still resents insinuations that Obama’s skin color was darkened in one of his campaign ads. “Silly s--- like that was tossed at us regularly,” he writes. And his feelings remain hurt that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon whom he calls “a personal hero,” invoked George Wallace and said McCain’s campaign was creating the kind of charged political atmosphere that led to the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing in 1963. “I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t forgive it,” McCain writes. “I still can’t.”

At times, the book reads like the travelogue of a globetrotting grandee. McCain devotes more ink to foreign affairs than any other topic, recounting so many sit-downs with heads of state that they’re hard to keep straight. But his book will be remembered for its genuine concern about the future of our republic and the West.

“I worry that we are at a turning point, a hinge of history, and the decisions made in the last 10 years and the decisions made tomorrow might be closing the door to the era of the American-led world order,” McCain writes. “I hope not, and it certainly isn’t too late to reverse that direction. But my time in that fight has concluded.”

The Restless Wave

By John McCain and Mark Salter

Simon & Schuster. 402 pp. $30