Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ). (Photo: US Marine Corps / Flickr)

The Iraq War Should Be a Much Bigger Part of McCain’s Legacy Than His ‘Civility’

The “straight talk” people praise McCain for is actually what most of them can’t stand about politicians: They say noble words but cast ignoble votes.

Peter Certo

 by OtherWords

In the last days of his life, an old video of John McCain surfaced on the internet.

It’s 2008. He’s running for president and fielding questions from voters in Minnesota. A middle-aged woman takes the microphone.

“I can’t trust Obama,” she complains of McCain’s Democratic opponent. “He’s an Arab.”

Whether they realize it or not, I think the “straight talk” people praise McCain for is actually what most of them can’t stand about politicians: They say noble words but cast ignoble votes.

The Arizona Republican shakes his head. Obama is “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with,” McCain retorts. And adds: “He’s not [an Arab].”

Standing up for a rival was classic McCain, many believed, and his handling of the incident got praise at the time. No wonder it’s circulating again now, after a later presidential candidate made that woman’s slanderous race-baiting look tame.

Still, too few people asked: Do real Arabs not make “decent family men” or citizens? Can one not have principled “disagreements” with them?

More concretely: McCain was then campaigning on a pledge to expand the Iraq war, which he’d championed from the beginning. That war had killed perhaps a million Arabs. It would lead later to a devastating occupation by ISIS, and yet more U.S. military intervention.

Throwing an entire ethnic group under the bus may not have been McCain’s intent, though he’d had his brushes with bigotry before. For years he referred to East Asians by a Vietnam-era sluropposed making MLK Day a holiday, and reportedly had a habit of calling women, even his wife, the c-word.

But it’s not really about McCain or what’s in his heart. It’s more about how the D.C.-based media reported him, and how admiring Americans interpreted his behavior.

Sporadically, the late Republican senator did take some principled stands. As a POW who suffered torture himself, he took on multiple Republican presidents to keep the U.S. from resuming it (though he steadfastly supported the wars in which that torture took place). And last year he cast a surprise, decisive vote against the GOP’s effort to kill Obamacare (though he’d voted against Obamacare earlier).

Mostly, though, McCain was a reliable vote for his party’s worst ideas, and contributed many of his own (like putting Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency). And despite his well-known feud with President Trump, he voted in support of the president’s agenda 83 percent of the time.

McCain supported the $2 trillion corporate tax giveaway that could tear our safety net to shreds. His unrelenting passion for military conflict was a thing of caricature (“bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” he famously sang). And his support for empire-crumbling military budgets was so renowned that his colleagues named this year’s $717 billion atrocity after him.

Trump never thanked McCain when he signed it, but sign it he did. Some feud!

The point isn’t that McCain’s odes to honor or civility were somehow dishonest. To him, I’m sure they were genuine.

But in emphasizing McCain’s personal style over his actual politics, his eulogizers imply there’s some “honorable” way to implement an agenda like Trump’s (or 83 percent of it, anyway), as long as you don’t talk like Trump himself.

Personally, I disagree. Whether they realize it or not, I think the “straight talk” people praise McCain for is actually what most of them can’t stand about politicians: They say noble words but cast ignoble votes.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trump’s personal style is a welcome change from McCain’s. It’s not. But politics can’t just be a theater for elites, where standing up for one rival outweighs supporting a war that killed a million people.

Actions matter more than words, and that’s the straightest talk I can think of.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Peter Certo

Peter Certo

Peter Certo is the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) editorial manager.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Store Walkout Over Firing of Starbucks Union Organizer Racks Up 20 Million Views on TikTok

"Starbucks continues its rampant firing of union leaders."

Jake Johnson ·


70% of Americans Support Deciding State Abortion Rights by Ballot Measure: Poll

After an "enormous victory" in Kansas, some progressives argue that ballot measures "are the next frontier" for protecting access to reproductive healthcare.

Jessica Corbett ·


Judge Rules Walgreens 'Substantially Contributed' to San Francisco Opioid Crisis

"Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits," said an attorney for the California city.

Brett Wilkins ·


Historic Climate Bill, Say Clear-Eyed Critics, Still 'Pours Gasoline on the Flames'

"This was a backdoor take-it-or-leave-it deal between a coal baron and Democratic leaders in which any opposition from lawmakers or frontline communities was quashed," said one activist.

Jessica Corbett ·


Doctors Against Oz Launch Campaign Denouncing GOP Candidate as 'Quack'

"ShamWow guy + stethoscope = Dr. Oz," said John Fetterman, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo