There’s raising Cain — a good, old-fashioned term for running riot or raising hell. And then there’s raising McCain. No American I have met has impressed me more profoundly than Senator John McCain, whose memorial service in Washington I attended yesterday. It was an uplifting occasion, as befitted a true American hero, and I am glad my six-year-old son was by my side to witness it and be inspired by it. But, amid all that patriotic rhetoric, not quite enough was said about John McCain’s hell-raising streak. That was the thing I liked about him most — and it was surely inseparable from his heroism.
I got to know John not long after I began teaching in the United States. I had just published my short history of the British Empire and, rather to my surprise, found myself invited to meet him in his office on Capitol Hill. An avid reader of history, he asked me to suggest some books to take on his regular flights between Washington and Arizona. Flattered, I obliged. It was a misleading overture to an enduring friendship — misleading because that was by far the most professorial conversation we ever had.
One of my fondest memories of John was sitting next to him at the February 2007 Munich security conference, an event he regularly attended. That was the year when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, delivered a remarkably inflammatory speech, denouncing US policy in the Middle East and the expansion of Nato in eastern Europe.
As Putin spoke, I was vividly reminded of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films: behind his deadpan demeanour was pure menace. The effect on John was seismic. I could sense an approaching eruption — indeed, I could see it as that battle-scarred face turned a bright crimson.
No sooner had Putin sat down than John leapt to his feet. “I just can’t let that pass,” he hissed. “I need to make a statement.” Mindful that he was intending to run for the Republican nomination the following year, I and others sought to dissuade him. His attitude was that an impromptu press conference would show admirable restraint. What he really felt like doing was punching Putin’s lights out.
The New York Times, in common with the rest of the liberal media, had few kind words to say about McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. (I played a minor role as a foreign policy adviser, which taught me that an adviser is someone who doesn’t get paid so that his advice can be easily ignored.) Back then, The New York Times described him as “aggressive” and “erratic”, his campaign as “angry and derisive”. Numerous commentators insisted that he was too old for the job. (He was 72 on election day and, as we now know, could have served two terms as president with a year and a half to spare.)
Now he is dead, of course, the New York Times can fondly remember him as a hero whose “temper that sometimes bordered on explosiveness” was part of his charm. But my view was always that McCain’s passion was a strength, not a weakness, in a potential president. In later life, unlike in his youth, he had that temper under control — as I saw at Munich, where we persuaded him not to shoot back at Putin from the hip. If any man needed no lectures on self-control from liberal journalists, it was John. He had demonstrated superhuman restraint in the “Hanoi Hilton”, refusing an early release by the North Vietnamese that would have spared him years of torture and deprivation.
At that time, his rage was inseparable from his courage. After the North Vietnamese realised they had captured the son of an admiral, they sent a delegation to offer McCain a ticket home. As a fellow prisoner of war recalled, he erupted. “Here’s a guy that’s all crippled up, all busted up, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to live to the next day, and he literally blew them out of there with a verbal assault.”
Men with Scottish roots have played a disproportionate part in the military history of the United States: check the index in any history of America’s wars and you will find a roll of honour from “Mac” to “Mc”. The McCains claim to be descendants of Robert the Bruce. Having known John McCain, I can well believe it.
The Bruce was no mean leader, and I still believe McCain would have been a great president, especially if the Republican apparat had accepted his first choice as running mate, the Democrat Joe Lieberman. Precisely John’s reputation as an irascible warrior would have deterred America’s enemies — Iran, North Korea and Russia — all of whom built up and flexed their military muscles during the presidency of the man who defeated McCain, Barack Obama. At the same time, as I argued then, precisely McCain’s hawkish record would have made it easier for him to pursue détente with our foes.
In short, I yield to no one in my admiration for John McCain. Had he been elected president — whether in 2000 or in 2008 — the United States and democracy around the world would be in a better state than they are today.
Yet there is one oft-repeated line I don’t endorse: we shall not see his like again. I don’t believe that. On the contrary, I think we are already seeing the emergence of a new generation of veterans turned politicians in his mould: men (and women) who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now playing an increasingly important role in public life.
More than a third of the new Republican House members elected in 2016 were veterans, as were 12% of their Democratic counterparts. All told, 95 representatives and senators have military experience. And more are almost certainly coming to Washington in the future. As of November 2016, according to the American Enterprise Institute, 1,039 out of 7,383 state-level legislators had veteran status. This is remarkable, considering that the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer force has greatly reduced the share of service personnel in the total population.
Of course, today’s veteran legislators — men such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher — would be the first to say that McCain was in a league of his own. Yet this generation, too, bears the scars of war. Brian Mast, the Republican who represents Florida’s 18th district, lost both legs in Afghanistan.
McCain personified the ideal of the Roman as well as the American Republic: the citizen-warrior who applies the wisdom learnt in battle to the good governance of the commonwealth, upholding the martial virtues among the lawyers and lobbyists. At a time when honour is conspicuous by its absence from the White House, we shall miss him. But we shall see his like again.
Indeed, I believe the widespread and bipartisan mourning of McCain’s passing is itself a harbinger of a new era in American politics, when those who have already served their country in battle serve it again as civilians — by raising Cain against the cynicism and corruption that for too long have threatened to ruin it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford