A Thought About John McCain

The emergence of conservative talk radio over the past 20 or 25 years has changed the tone of public discourse in this country. We have always had competing political views and objectives but the discourse was generally civil, almost polite, compared to how it is today.  It’s not enough to disagree with our opponents anymore; we must despise them and revile them and ambush them in church or at work or at their kids’ schools or in restaurants with the kind of invective that in days of yore we attributed mostly to sailors.

Until recently, though, that heated discourse was limited to the talkers and their listeners and the protesters.  Our politicians listened to it, benefited from it, and tacitly encouraged it but they didn’t engage in it directly themselves until one transformative event in American history:  on August 29, 2008, newly anointed Republican presidential nominee John McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

She brought out the worst in so very many people

Palin was in no way fit to run for national office. She was a former small-town mayor who became a small-state governor and had clearly, based on her performance as a vice presidential candidate, never given any meaningful thought to the implications of holding national office.  With no wisdom or insight or even ideas to share with the public, she shared venom and vituperation instead.  She called people names, she impugned their character and integrity, she took a sort of perverse, defiant pride in her ignorance.  Instead of offering us a sharp mind she offered us only a sharp tongue.

Things haven’t been the same ever since.  When the contest was over and Palin returned to Alaska, too bored to continue governing and instead setting her sights on using her new-found fame to get rich while flirting with a run for the presidency that even she, in her cluelessness, must have sensed was a bad idea, the floodgates opened and out poured first more regular people eager to share their unfiltered derision and contempt to any available ear.  It was in this context that the Tea Party emerged to protest the actions of a newly elected president who hadn’t even done anything yet to which to object.  Then their elected officials did the same, following the lead of their constituents instead of leading by a better example.  Ever since, public officials have aired their vile fulminations regularly and seemingly without thought or, heaven forbid, self-reflection, a development that culminated first in the election of Donald Trump and then in a most extraordinary way recently when a Supreme Court nominee brought the judiciary into the fray with his angry, sputtering, furious insistence that he was the victim of a left-wing conspiracy engineered, incredibly, by the Clintons.

It surely wasn’t his intention but it just as surely was his fault

John McCain, even in death, needs to be held accountable for this, because it was his actions that directly led to it.  Yes, it may very well have happened anyway, but his nomination of Sarah Palin was the key that unlocked the door for all of this nonsense.  Sensing that he had little chance of winning the 2008 election – The Curmudgeon recalls a conversation he had with his father that fall during which dad offered his theory that after considering all the trouble the economy was in, McCain was behaving as if he no longer even wanted to be president – McCain acted out of desperation, hoping he could do something so bold, so attention-getting, so apple cart-upsetting that he could light a fire under voters and snatch victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat.  It was an incredibly cynical act borne of naked ambition and cold calculation, an irresponsible deed by a man who professed to put country above all else, and it has given rise to a culture of hatred and fear.  That wasn’t McCain’s intention, but he bears a significant degree of responsibility for it nonetheless.

Yes, John McCain had many fine qualities and for the most part served his country admirably.  We should remember him for that, but we also should remember him for a horrible misstep that changed for the worse – possibly forever – the nature of political discourse in this country.

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