REVIEW: John McCain Has an Important Message for His Fellow Americans

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The Restless Wave

 by John McCain and Mark Salter

Simon & Schuster, 380 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

Even as John McCain fights terminal brain cancer in Arizona, his name is still making headlines, notably with his recent opposition to Gina Haspel for CIA Director because of her complicity with the use of torture in the Bush administration.  The heavily reported insensitive remark about McCain’s expected demise by a Trump aide in a discussion of McCain’s impact on various pieces of legislation speaks to his continued significance.  That his closest political allies and friends -- Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins -- both voted for Haspel, along with virtually every other Republican, shows the limits of his relevance in today's Republican party. Still, McCain will not leave without having a last word.

John McCain’s new memoir is a wistful recounting of his life since 2008 that highlights the political philosophy he nurtured even as it was becoming increasingly outdated in the party that he loves.  Without saying as much, he has become the diametric opposite of the man who now leads the party both in theory and practice.  McCain’s book is not an act of political revenge against those he opposes, though he has some choice words for Representative Steve King of Iowa and his vehemently anti-immigration views.  It is largely a paean to his life in the Senate, his friendships with fellow senators in both parties, and the ideals he has come to embody.

McCain begins with his 2008 primary campaign for President. Although he regrets his inability to have his friend, Joe Lieberman, as his running mate, he has only positive things to say about the “high risk/high reward” Sarah Palin who would become a harbinger of things to come.  He does highlight, however, his interaction with a woman at a town hall meeting who insisted that Obama was a Muslim and a foreigner.  His well-publicized correction of her sentiments and so-called facts was a testament to his basic honesty and decency.

McCain then goes on to describe his fight against torture, saying that his treatment by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War was not as bad as Abu Graib.  He states unequivocally that torture has never uncovered any significant information for the United States and that its use says more about us than about them.

Much of the book deals with the Middle East, starting with the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and ending with McCain's thoughts on the Arab Spring.  Although he ultimately admits that Iraq was a mistake, he remains committed to the use of military force in almost every instance that the United States could possibly have an involvement.  Being the son and grandson of admirals and a Navy flier, his belief in and love of the military and military men is deeply ingrained.  His years of spending major holidays in the Mideast and his many senatorial visits to the region suggest strongly that his feelings are sincere.

At heart McCain is a Reagan Republican, a strong believer in lower taxes, free markets, free trade, defense readiness, and democratic internationalism. At the same time, he is a proponent of campaign finance reform, comprehensive immigration reform, and the use of the military in maintaining or establishing democratic institutions in almost all foreign nations.  This last view is rooted in his strong belief in “American Exceptionalism,” as he sees it.  It is a vision of a country united by its ideals, a government created and maintained by consent and committed to equal justice.  He is not so naïve as to believe these principles will always prevail, but he sees the United States as uniquely capable of striving toward them, and he fervently believed we should be a beacon for the rest of the world.

If there is an enemy to be found in the book, it is decidedly Vladimir Putin.  McCain sees Putin as the antithesis of everything he stands for, an unrepentant KGB agent who is constantly on the offensive even as Russia deals with a tough economic position -- overly dependent on gas and oil.  McCain believes Putin will remain on the offensive as he has been in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine until he encounters opposition, and that the United States, with its diametrically opposed positions, belief in democratic institutions abroad, and economic and military power, is the only force to oppose him.

McCain's memoir is pretty much the book that has been advertised.  Its subtitle is "Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations."  McCain recounts his love for his family’s hideaway in the north of Arizona, known as Hidden Valley, his friendships with fellow senators of both sides of the aisle -- Graham and Collins, Ted Kennedy, and Joe Biden, to name a few-- his cutting remarks in the Senate in the heat of battle with both friend and foe, the causes that mean so much to him and his appreciation for a life spent fighting and doing what he loves most. 

The Restless Wave is not likely to go down in the annals of the great political memoirs of its time, or any other, but it is has its place, and it has something to say.  It is a testament to a certain ideal of American Hero, who is unabashedly patriotic, deeply sentimental about military veterans, former senate colleagues, fellow prisoner of wars -- and most of all, the country he loves.  McCain's belief that all people are basically good and side with their better angels may be difficult to fathom in these trying times, but they are decidedly heartfelt. You may not always agree with the author's values or choices, but you cannot read this book without being impressed by his consistency and moral conviction -- qualities that are increasingly rare in today’s world.