The front of Sunday’s New York Times featured political reporter Jonathan Martin’s tribute to the ailing Sen. John McCain: “At Home, McCain Shares Memories and Regrets.” It has some charming moments, but comes off hypocritical, given the paper’s back and forth feelings for McCain, praising him when he was a threat to more conservative Republicans during the 2008 party primaries, condemning him when he threatened the saintly Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election campaign. It also used the veteran moderate Republican as a convenient, pointed rebuttal to President Trump.
As he battles brain cancer and the debilitating side effects of his aggressive treatment, Mr. McCain himself is reckoning with his history and the future, as he and a stream of friends share memories and say what needs to be said.
The Republican senator encouraged the former Democratic vice president to “not walk away” from politics, as Mr. Biden put it before refusing to discuss a possible 2020 presidential run. Mr. McCain is using a new book and documentary to reveal his regret about not selecting former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate in 2008. His intimates have informed the White House that their current plan for his funeral is for Vice President Mike Pence to attend the service to be held in Washington’s National Cathedral but not President Trump, with whom Mr. McCain has had a rocky relationship.
But his health has become a matter of immediate political interest. Mr. McCain’s future may determine whether Republicans retain their single-seat Senate majority: Should the senator die or resign before the end of May, there will most likely be a special election for the seat this fall. But under Arizona law, if he remains in office into June, there will probably not be an election for the seat until 2020, which Republicans would prefer given Democratic enthusiasm this year.
While the paper will praise McCain for his pro-amnesty views, it won’t forgive him for elevating Sarah Palin into national prominence. Then McCain showed why he is (sometimes) the paper’s favorite Republican by lamenting that he didn’t pick pro-choice Democratic Sen. Joe Liberman as his running mate.
Yet many in Mr. McCain’s own party believe that, by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, he bears at least a small measure of blame for unleashing the forces of grievance politics and nativism within the Republican Party.
While he continues to defend Ms. Palin’s performance, Mr. McCain uses the documentary and the book to unburden himself about not selecting Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, as his running mate.
He recalls that his advisers warned him that picking a vice-presidential candidate who caucused with Democrats and supported abortion rights would divide Republicans and doom his chances.
After criticizing McCain, Martin tut-tutted “hard-right” conservatives who also criticized the (snore) “maverick” McCain.
But Mr. McCain’s conservative detractors have not forgiven his maverick tendencies simply because he is ill.
When Mr. Pence addressed a hard-right audience gathered in Tempe last week to promote the administration’s tax cuts, he said that “people all across America are praying for Senator John McCain” -- and one woman yelled out, “to retire.”
Martin gave a shout out to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a McCain friend (also known, at last, for Chappaquiddick) as a giant of Congress, along with the vituperative partisan Rep. John Lewis.
In Washington, Mr. McCain’s admirers believe the Senate and the Republican Party lack a needed counterbalance to Mr. Trump and worry that his absence only presages a larger decline in the country’s politics. With Mr. Kennedy gone and Mr. McCain ailing, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights legend, is one of the few figures left in Washington who evoke a bigness at a moment in history that can seem all too small.