John McCain is a victim of hypocrisy. His allies in Washington and admirers in the national media praise him as the conscience of the nation, even as they betray him in his last desperate battle against the normalisation of torture. After a White House communications staffer, Kelly Sadler, joked that McCain’s views don’t matter because “he’s dying anyway,” the senator’s pretend friends called for her firing. Her tasteless joke, badly received even among colleagues, provoked a degree of outrage from wonks and commentators unmatched by any such umbrage at the nomination of a woman implicated in torture and the destruction of evidence to head the CIA. For elite Washington, disrespectful words are worse than waterboarding.
McCain’s closest friend in the US Senate has been Lindsey Graham. His bitterest foe has been Rand Paul. But it is Paul, not Graham, who stands with McCain against the nomination of Gina Haspel. In embracing Haspel, Graham has shown that however much he loves John McCain, he loves the national-security state more. Jeff Flake, McCain’s colleague from Arizona, has yet to make up his mind, and he may be swayed by McCain’s declaration that “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” However he winds up voting, he will be gone from the Senate after January. In the years to come, Paul looks to be the last Republican in the chamber to carry on the principled fight against torture. McCain’s legacy, ironically, is only safe with his enemy.
The PR campaign to get Haspel confirmed was the occasion for the White House communications meeting where Sadler made her ill-considered crack. It will probably end her career; already a righteous mob on Twitter is howling for her head. Involvement in torture might not mean you never work again in Washington, D.C.—in fact, you might even get promoted to head the world’s most powerful spy agency—but say something ugly about an idol of the political class and you stand to lose your job. Since Trump took office, the president’s critics have had much to say about the “norms” of political decency he supposedly violates. Here we see what those norms are worth: they are apt to serve as cover for the most inhuman of indecencies. They protect reputations, not rights or lives.
Haspel should not be confirmed. McCain, who has been wrong about so much in his long career, is right about this. It will be a grim verdict on his accomplishments, however, if it is precisely in this most conscientious of fights that he finds himself abandoned by those who claim to esteem him most. Honour John McCain not by calling for Sadler’s dismissal, but by proving her wrong—and by stopping an overseer of torture from reaping profit from her sins.