John McCain is not signing off quietly. As in so much of the senator’s life, the rebellious Republican is facing this challenging chapter – battling brain cancer – in his own rule-breaking way, stirring up old fights and starting new ones. Rarely has the sickbed been so lively
McCain is promoting a new book, The Restless Wave, delivering a counterpunch of ideals contrary to President Donald Trump’s running of the White House. McCain’s long-distance rejection of CIA director nominee Gina Haspel’s history with torture goaded former vice-president Dick Cheney into a fresh debate over waterboarding and other now-banned interrogation techniques. Last Friday, friends rallied to defend McCain against a White House official’s cruel joke that his positions don’t matter because “he’s dying anyway”.
If this is Washington’s long goodbye to a sometimes favourite son, it’s also a re-emergence of old resentments and political fault lines that continue to split the US.
Perhaps no-one should have expected anything less from the 81-year-old senator, who can be crotchety and cantankerous but is also seen by many as an American hero, flaws and all.
Former vice-president Joe Biden said on Friday as McCain “fights for his life, he deserves better – so much better. Our children learn from our example. The lingering question is: whose example will it be? I am certain it will be John’s.”
McCain was diagnosed in July with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. He left Washington in December and few expect him to return. Up-and-down reports of his health shift every few days.
A steady stream of visitors have stopped by the McCain family ranch in Arizona, including Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.
Close friend and political ally Senator Lindsey Graham visited McCain last week and the two watched an old movie and talked about McCain’s imprint on politics.
Graham said he told McCain he will leave behind a long list of Republicans – and Democrats – he has mentored. “Your legacy is the people you affected,” Graham said he told his friend. “John McCain’s going to have a hell of a legacy.”
Not everyone, though, is so keen to listen to McCain these days. Most Republican senators are not heeding his advice to reject Haspel, who was chief of base of a detention site where terror suspects were waterboarded. McCain lived through years of captivity during the Vietnam War.
Trump has suggested reviving the now-banned interrogation techniques. And Cheney, who was an architect of the post-September 11, 2001, strategy, said he would keep the programme active and ready for deployment, and doesn’t think it amounted to torture.
“People want to go back and try to rewrite history, but if it were my call, I’d do it again,” Cheney told Fox Business.