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PBS' 'Frontline' Portrait of ‘McCain' is a Politician Determined to Speak Truth to Power
April 16, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

Given the present state of affairs-of-state, one could be forgiven for thinking Arizona Sen. John Sidney McCain III is old news.
The one-time naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam in October 1967 at age 31 and held prisoner in Hanoi until 1973, the five-time US Senator and GOP stalwart who, as the Republican nominee for President, ran against Barack Obama in 2008— and famously chose Sarah Palin as his running mate — seems like a holdover from a past age, a kinder, gentler time in history when bipartisanship wasn’t a dirty word and representatives on both sides of the political aisle could work together through horse-trading and mutual respect.

As Tuesday’s Frontline program, titled simply McCain, shows though, the man nicknamed “Maverick” for his penchant for marching to the beat of his own drum — even if it means disagreeing with his party on divisive issues — McCain is as relevant today as he was the day he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986.
McCain’s backers and supporters, past, and present — with one notable exception — cite his honesty, integrity and reputation for being a straight-shooter with upholding the Constitution and walking the walk down the path first forged by the Founding Fathers. On one level, Frontline’s McCain is a follow-up — contentious, absorbing and, in its own way, every bit as controversial — to last week’s Frontline program Trump’s Takeover. As the Republican party became more conservatively ideological under the stewardship of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, McCain became more of an outlier — strong-willed, independent-minded. and unwilling to bend to party convention simply because it was the easy thing to do — as Gingrich himself grumbled, “I think McCain has a really deep, desperate sense of marching to the beat of his own drummer. And what that means on one level is it expresses itself sometimes in a need to go kick people in the shins. And he occasionally adopts an idea that is abhorrent to modern conservatism.”
The Gingrich clip appears midway through McCain, a screener of which was made available to TV Worth Watching in advance but which was still subject to last-minute editing at press time. Whether or not Gingrich’s comments appear in the final cut, the former Speaker’s stance was — and remains — a matter of public record: Not all card-carrying Republicans are true believers in the maverick senior senator from Arizona.
That doubt, though, is nothing compared to the deep-rooted animosity — enmity, even — that exists between McCain and the current President. And it’s here where the program McCain scores its deepest points. To say that McCain’s relationship with Donald Trump is complicated is a little like saying Arizona suffers from hot, dry summers. McCain would chart his course as an independent-minded Republican from his earliest days in the Senate. For the autocratic-minded Trump, though, “independent-minded” is code for “troublemaker.” McCain is a supporter of environmental protections, a believer in campaign finance reform and unafraid to take on the religious right, a lawmaker who, in a televised speech from early in his political career — also in the Frontline program — famously said, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”
He didn’t stutter, either.

Frontline’s McCain plays like a straight-talking express from its opening moments, but it’s at the halfway point, roughly midway through McCain’s hour-long running time, that the express picks up steam. From the moment he first decided to run for President, in 2000, McCain the maverick became part of the mainstream conversation. And it’s that which has made him a thorn in the side of the Trump presidency, no more so than that day last summer when he cast the deciding vote against Trump’s bid for health reform.
Trump, to use a good English word, was reportedly incandescent with rage.

Frontline’s producers have again gone to great effort to get prominent Republican voices on the record — Gingrich, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and others — and the result makes for absorbing viewing. McCain won’t make Trump happy, on any level, but by painstakingly going over McCain’s political career, the lows as well as the highs, a striking portrait emerges of a complicated man with an unwavering belief in moral integrity above all else, and who shows both a refreshing sense of self-awareness and an unwillingness to bend to the prevailing opinion of the time. McCain is part biography, part political thriller, very different from its predecessor and companion program Trump’s Takeover and yet no less revealing and revelatory in the way it pulls back the curtain on the rough-and-tumble of American politics in 2018. 
“This isn’t about who they are,” the Frontline program recalls McCain saying at a Senate Committee hearing into prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. “It’s about who we are. These are values that distinguish us from our enemies.”

I’m an admirer of Frontline’s reportage — no secret there, to anyone who’s read this space — but I do think, even by Frontline’s standards, that McCain is a remarkably eye-opening, sober-minded, objective portrait of the man who titled his autobiography Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir. It’s not boilerplate biography, and yet it is the kind of program I would hope to see in public schools one day: edifying and enriching, but never boring, not unlike maverick McCain himself, as different from a predictable, rote TV biography as night from day.

Rebels within the Republican Party took issue with his representing the party as their presidential candidate during his first campaign for the highest office in the land: They called him a RINO: “Republican in name only.”

“I will never waver in my conviction,” McCain is shown telling a hostile audience at CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at one point in the program. “I promise you.”


'Frontline: McCain' premieres Tuesday, April 17 on PBS, at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings)
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