Trump, McCain and Choosing Not to Be a Sore Loser
Wednesday night, as I toggled between a televised Washington Nationals game and the Stanley Cup finals, a goofy story lit up my phone. Even in our currently deranged political environment, this sounded pretty preposterous. I thought it must be something from The Onion.
But no, it apparently was real. It seems that on President Trump’s weekend sojourn to Japan, some genius in the White House thought it best if the commander-in-chief was spared the torment of gazing upon a U.S. Navy destroyer-class ship moored in Yokosuka harbor -- a ship named the USS John McCain.
And thus, according to the Wall Street Journal, the ship’s name was covered with a tarp, a barge was ordered to anchor in the sight line of the McCain, its crew was given a weekend pass so that sailors with that forbidden name on their caps wouldn’t be in the presence of the president.
Further reporting this morning reveals that when Navy brass heard of this, they put a stop to it before Trump even reached Japan. For his part, the president insisted he knew noting about it. I have no reason to disbelieve him, but am nonetheless put in mind of a fascinating account of John McCain’s difficult relationship with another U.S. president, also a Republican, one fleshed out in The New Yorker magazine 14 years ago this month.
This story had a twist, as I’ll explain.
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In her superb New Yorker magazine profile of John McCain dated May 22, 2005, Connie Bruck delved into one of the riddles of McCain’s character: Why was he not more bitter? This was a theme explored by McCain himself in the best-selling books he wrote with Mark Salter, but mainly as it applied to the North Vietnamese who tortured him and other American prisoners of war.
Bruck was interested in something more contemporary at the time, and highly relevant to domestic politics. In 2000, McCain had upended the established order of things with his landslide victory over George W. Bush in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary. John McCain may have been the son and grandson of admirals -- U.S. Navy royalty, in other words -- but Dubya was the son of a president and grandson of a U.S. senator. He was Republican Party royalty. But after New Hampshire, Bush’s campaign wasn’t rescued by the genteel GOP establishment. It was aided and abetted by a guerilla campaign featuring dirty tricks and rumor-mongering by South Carolina conservatives that was so nasty nobody has taken credit for it to this day.
What Bruck wanted to know was how McCain managed to put that behind him and stay in the Republican Party (even after John Kerry offered him the veep spot on the Democrats’ 2004 ticket) while forging a working, even cordial, relationship with Bush 43.
The 2000 presidential campaign was the first electoral contest McCain had ever lost, Bruck noted, adding that “for someone so competitive that he didn’t speak to his best friend in prison for days after losing to him in a bridge game, this defeat was particularly hard.”
When she asked him about it, it was clear that McCain had wrestled with this himself and worked it out in a way that gave him some measure of peace. He looked to an example -- a negative example, in this case -- provided by Theodore Roosevelt, one of McCain’s political heroes, who was defeated by Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
“Roosevelt was very bitter at the end of his life,” McCain told Bruck. “And I took a lesson from that -- that I would not be bitter.”
“Americans don’t like sore losers!” McCain added with some heat. “They want you to move on. And that’s what I did. I didn’t complain, didn’t express outrage. I moved on.”
That attitude, along with the fact that he wasn’t a general election candidate in 2000, apparently prolonged the life John Sidney McCain III.
It seems that at the 2000 Republican National Convention, George W. Bush’s advisers chafed at the level of media coverage McCain was receiving. In an equivalent gesture to covering up his name with a tarp, they sent word to McCain adviser John Weaver. “Would you guys please leave the convention? You’re getting too much attention.”
Weaver reported that he and fellow McCain aide Rick Davis “went to New York to go to Le Cirque and get drunk.” But with unexpected time on his hands, McCain decided to go a medical facility in Bethesda, Md., to have a troubling bump on his face checked.
“The next week, he called -- it was malignant,” Weaver recalled. “If he had waited another month or two -- and he would have, if he’d been running -- it would have been lights out.”
McCain was diagnosed with a recurrence of melanoma, which had first surfaced in 1993. “The cancer put him in a hurry,” Weaver said, “and made his zest for life even more robust.”