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'McCain' Offers Up a Balanced Appreciation of the Senator
April 17, 2018  | By Gerald Jordan  | 2 comments

The Frontline documentary, McCain, is offered as a coda to director Michael Kirk’s look at the Republican Party’s plunge into sharp-elbowed attacks on reason and political compromise. It could serve, though, as a fond, even endearing, farewell to Sen. John McCain, the GOP self-described “maverick,” who has been diagnosed as having a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.
McCain (10 p.m. EDT Tuesday on PBS, check local listings) tracks the career of the son and grandson of decorated Navy admirals from his Vietnam prisoner of war days through a political career punctuated by sheer unpredictability. McCain could just as easily have been titled “Profiles in Courage” for the senator’s many showdowns with his party. The one stark exception, though, is his failed run for president against eventual winner Barack Obama. McCain reached out to the radical right that emerged in 1994 and grew to gain control of the GOP, ultimately electing Donald Trump. McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin to run as his vice-president was less than inspired and overwhelmingly desperate. It was game on, though, for the GOP extremes to take center stage. The wicked irony is that just eight years prior to McCain’s Republican nomination for president, the GOP establishment worried that it couldn’t control McCain.

Establishment Republicans had lots bigger worries, concerns that should have been obvious in McCain’s getting booed at the annual gathering of conservatives in Washington, or the clucking in conservative media he took each time he tried to steer his campaign away from ad hominem attacks on Obama. Those slights and a host of others led to why it was possible for Trump, five draft deferments and all, to besmirch the decorated military status of John McCain, then go on to be elected president.

How can anyone possibly espouse small-government, pragmatic, old-fashioned conservative virtues and be so vilified by the party built on those values?

The documentary does a good job of showing McCain’s torture-enforced turn to maturity when he was a POW, to his willingness to fraternize with the supposed political enemy when he was a Navy liaison to Congress and befriended Democrat Gary Hart and progressive Republican William Cohen. The documentary also honestly, if not briefly, reminds us that McCain’s career almost ended with the Savings & Loan scandal that became known as the Keating 5, when the Arizona senator’s career was almost derailed by his close association with Charles Keating. McCain was deemed “guilty of poor judgment,” but cleared of any S&L-related charge.

The man who was broken by Vietnamese torture, but declined special treatment because he was the son of a four-star admiral, might be remembered by Democrats as a national hero had he not unleashed Sarah Palin into mainstream politics.

McCaincontinues the informative and distinguished Frontline documentaries that have earned 89 Emmy Awards and 20 Peabody Awards.
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