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Conservatives Could Learn a Lot from How McCain Handled Race

He made plenty of mistakes but was open about his failures. That's more than can be said for many on the right today.

by Issac J. Bailey
Aug 27 2018, 10:15pm

McCain in 2007. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty

Even after all we’ve seen the past couple of years—including emboldened white supremacists giddy about the man in the White House and millions of Donald Trump supporters ignoring his bigotry—conservatives continue learning the wrong lessons about the Trump era. They are now using the memory of John McCain to double down on their blind spots. Instead of taking the occasion of McCain’s death to engage in some self-reflection—something McCain did after his own race-related screw-ups—they’ve elected to use it to absolve the Republican Party of its responsibility for appointing a man-child as the head of our country.

“It’s worth pointing out that the same man who is justly receiving praise for this moment of civility was smeared by Democrats and more than a few journalists as a racist during that very campaign. One Dem congressman compared him to George Wallace,” conservative writer James Hasson tweeted along with a 2008 video of McCain’s famous repudiation of a white woman who was using the word “Arab” as a slur against Barack Obama during the presidential campaign that year.

David French of the National Review agreed with Hasson, commenting, “And those very smears—compounded with smears on Mitt Romney four years later—that convinced millions of Republicans that some on the Left hate them no matter the class of their candidate. By the way, contrast McCain there with Joe Biden’s ‘put y’all back in chains.’”

Ben Shapiro, one of the most influential conservative writers, made a feature-length version of this argument on Monday in a piece titled, “The Media Properly Honor John McCain After His Death. Their Scorn For Him in 2008 Helped Make Trump.” In it, he argues that “without the media’s nasty treatment of McCain in 2008 and then Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump wouldn’t be president. Republicans reacted to McCain’s Nice Guy 2008 campaign and Romney’s Nice Guy II: The Revenge 2012 campaign by nominating the meanest sonofabitch they could find. Trump was that guy. The media slandered George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Republicans reacted by finding someone with a pathological urge to punch back. As we’ve seen, that urge is often gross and counterproductive. But to leave the media off the hook when it comes to their treatment of McCain is to ignore history.”

All of that aligns with the excuse-making conservatives have committed to since Trump won the electoral college in November 2016. These excuses tend to fall in line with this sentiment from Bari Weiss at the New York Times:

Are conservatives that void of intellect and moral fortitude that they couldn’t find a way to fend off unfair charges of racism—which I spent years defending the GOP against—while retaining the ability to resist someone as obviously bigoted as Trump? I’ve been called racist, and worst, over the past two decades. That happens when you publicly debate the issue of race. Those false charges have not made it more difficult for me to recognize the real thing.

Never mind that 58 percent of white people—roughly the percentage who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Ronald Reagan in 1980—chose a man who kicked off his campaign calling most Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals after spending five years leading the bigoted birtherism conspiracy against Barack Obama.

No—had it not been for liberals falsely demeaning good men like McCain and Romney, Trump wouldn’t have won, according to the conservative theory. They can’t admit that Romney was rightly criticized for his “47 percent” and “free stuff” comments, and that McCain was rightly taken to task for what he said about “gooks.” They can’t admit that these men were imperfect even if neither were racist. Their argument is meant to honor McCain while labeling liberals as the real cause of racial strife over the past two years—even though it was their party who elected a man who is a 21st-century fulfillment of white supremacists’ dreams. It’s a tin-eared argument in the extreme, and a dangerous one. It absolves those who chose to support Trump’s bigotry, and those who chose not to resist it with everything they have, of all responsibility. It makes it impossible for even #NeverTrump conservatives to learn from McCain’s strengths and weaknesses.



McCain made mistakes on race and was willing to name those mistakes. After the passing of South African leader Nelson Mandela in 2013, reporters began asking congressmen who had voted against sanctioning the South African apartheid regime in 1980s if they had any regret. Most of them demurred or dodged the question. McCain said this: “I don’t think any of them would openly admit it, but I think that when you read between the lines… a number of them that I know believe that, if they had a do-over, they would probably do it differently.”

McCain also initially voted against the sanctions before traveling to South Africa. Then he changed his mind and voted in favor of sanctions. This was his explanation to journalists years later: “I met with these apartheid guys, and some of them were just thugs. So after that visit, I came back and announced that I supported the sanctions.”

And this: “I’m really glad that I took the time to go to South Africa because I might have maintained the same position that I had bought into.”

In the 80s, McCain was one of the members of Congress who initially opposed declaring Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday as a national holiday. On that, he changed his mind as well. Here is how PolitiFact summarized a speech he gave in 2008:

"We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong," he said, to loud reaction from the crowd. "I was wrong, and eventually realized it in time to give full support—full support—for a state holiday in my home state of Arizona. I'd remind you that we can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans."

He also expressed profound regret in 2000 for how he handled the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina during that year’s presidential primary against eventual winner George W. Bush. He thought the flag should be taken down from the State House, but didn't say so in the heat of the race. “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So, I chose to break my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth,” he said.

Conservatives could look at McCain’s track record on race and learn a lot. Even good men can momentarily cave to political pressure and slink away from their stated principles. (Romney did the same in 2012 when he sought and received Trump’s endorsement even though Trump was in the midst of promoting the birtherism conspiracy.) It does not diminish them to note the times they have failed.

Instead, the right has chosen to do to McCain what it has long done to our Founding Fathers: talk up his greatness while minimizing his missteps. A more honest accounting of his legacy would note that for all his good qualities, he could occasionally lose his way on race, and sometimes helped elevate ugly rhetoric—as he did when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a choice he later regretted. It would be wiser for conservatives to use McCain’s passing as a catalyst for asking themselves how to avoid a repeat of those errors instead of distorting his record on race just to “own the libs.”

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