I am not going to comment directly on the passing of Senator John McCain. Although I voted for him in 2008, I thought him a deeply flawed candidate. His behaviour subsequently, especially after Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and then President, was in my judgment petty, self-aggrandising, and harmful to the country.
What interests me now, however, are the hallelujahs of praise and commendation that surrounded his passing. He has always been a hero to the neo-conservative faithful. But here we have The New York Times running a fawning obituary with the title ‘War Hero, Senator, Presidential Contender.’ It was the full lion-of-the-Senate treatment: ‘proud naval aviator . . . climbed from depths of despair as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to pinnacles of power . . . two-time contender for the presidency,’ yada, believe me, yada.
Just how great was John McCain, according to the Times? This great: Despite his grave condition, he soon made a dramatic appearance in the Senate to cast a thumbs-down vote against his party’s drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Give the parrot another cracker!
It is instructive, then, to compare The New York Times’s coverage of McCain circa 2018 with what it had to say in 2008, when it actually mattered in more than a rhetorical sense. The Times was happy to support McCain during the primary season, doubtless understanding that he was the weaker candidate. But when it came down to it, the Times wrote that McCain was ‘aggressive,’ ‘erratic,’ possibly a bit touched in the head, to mention, old, old. In a piece titled ‘The Real John McCain,’ published in September 2008, as the campaign was approaching its white-hot finale, the Times wondered whether, as McCain took the stage, ‘there would be any sign of the senator we long respected.’
There were a few sops of the old McCain, the Times admitted. But no one will be surprised that the Times came down firmly on the other side. The evening, they said, was full of ‘chilling glimpses of the new John McCain, who questioned the patriotism of his opponents as the ‘me first, country second’ crowd.’
The Times continued in a musing mood: ‘In the end, we couldn’t explain the huge difference between the John McCain of Thursday night and the one who ran such an angry and derisive campaign and convention.’ Angry!
Like Oswald the boy scout in P. G. Wodehouse, I am behind in my good deeds for the day. So let me help with an explanation. The Times was perfectly willing to slather praise on John McCain so long as he was in his ‘Maverick’ mode, i.e., just so long as he was making trouble for Republicans. Just as soon as he might be a threat to Democratic hegemony, however, the Times is there to swat him down.
The Times is perfectly willing, nay eager, to celebrate the memory of John McCain. After all, his most conspicuous activities these past few years have been as an anti-Trump activist. But back in the day, the Times was quick to put John McCain in his place just as soon has he tried to abandon his role as a ‘maverick,’ i.e., unreliable, but essentially pro-Democratic, trouble maker.
Like Dewar’s Scotch, the Times has this to be said for it: it never varies.