I hope my editors boil in oil in the afterlife for asking me to review John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, the new HBO doc that premieres Memorial Day and stars David Brooks, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and a succession of other wax-museum escapees who line up to evade and prevaricate about things McCain-related and not.
The review copy might as well have been titled, Go Ahead, Say Something Bad About a Terminal Cancer Patient. I felt like a monster 20 seconds in.
Having covered McCain’s 2008 run, I had mixed feelings about the man anyway. Just as a person, McCain came across as the kind of insistently obnoxious guy you hear complaining about the slow service in an airport bar – a type I always found oddly sympathetic.
But the political myth-making around McCain has always been tough to take, and this movie is basically two hours of it. The myths aren’t just about McCain, either, but also an effort to gloss over about six decades of American history, and how we got to the terrible place we’re in today.
The movie is called For Whom the Bell Tolls because McCain calls the Hemingway novel his “lodestar.” Mark Salter says its theme, “The harder the cause, even lost, the better the cause,” spoke deeply to his personal belief system.
McCain has certainly fought for a lot of lost causes in his life. But most of them were causes he deserved to lose.
For instance, one of the things McCain will be most harshly judged for is his decision to make Sarah Palin his running mate in 2008. Many people (correctly) believe that moment paved the way for the rise of what David Brooks in the movie calls “a disease” of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party.
But the excuses offered in the film by McCain supplicants like Rick Davis and Salter is that McCain, instead of running against expected establishment opponent Hillary Clinton, had to find a way to run against “change” in Barack Obama.
George W. Bush, the storyline goes, was the most unpopular president ever at the time, with a 25 percent approval rating. Obama, as a result, was kicking McCain’s ass on the stump by pointing out that McCain said he shared a “common philosophy” with the hated Bush.
In this situation, the legend continues, McCain had to gamble: “Fight change with change,” as daughter Meghan puts it in the film.
So McCain brought in Sarah Palin, who was a hell of a change, all right, with the IQ of a cheese-wheel – she made Dan Quayle sound like Spinoza. McCain’s campaign was cooked from that moment, because as the months passed, he couldn’t conceal his growing contempt for his own decision, leading to a fracture within the party that has persisted to this day.
This narrative makes it out to be just McCain’s bad luck that he had to run against a brilliant marketing phenomenon like Barack Obama at a time when Republicans’ national popularity was plummeting along with Bush.
But McCain deserves that millstone around his neck. No other politician – not even, really, Bush himself – was as aggressive in pushing the catastrophic Iraq invasion that ultimately cratered the modern Republican Party.
McCain talked about military action against Iraq long before any other prominent elected official. He did it while the towers were still smoldering, on September 12th, 2001, predicting many of our future Middle East interventions. He pushed action in not “just Afghanistan – we’re talking about Syria, Iraq, Iran, perhaps North Korea, Libya and others.”
He then went on Letterman in October and, in the middle of tumescent descriptions of how American weaponry was performing in Afghanistan, said, “The second phase is Iraq.”
It’s hard not to remember that candidate Donald Trump didn’t just viciously pick on McCain’s POW past; he also successfully ran (as a candidate, anyway) against the Middle East wars McCain, and most all of the other panelists interviewed, supported.
That Trump has cranked up our bombing campaigns and proved to be a total fraud on the “war is a bad deal” front is immaterial. This is an example of how the backslapping gang of Beltway all-stars who gather in this film to lament the loss of civility in politics had a lot to do with bringing about that change. They helped create that anger vote.
McCain adviser Rick Davis in the film talks about how bringing on Palin was an ill-considered attempt to bring “the Maverick” legend back.
The thing is, the Maverick legend, in reality, is based on the humorous fact that McCain has a “cactus” personality and has routinely called other senators names like “shithead” and “fucking jerk” – not for ideological reasons, but just because he has the temper of a normal human being thrust into that horrible job. McCain has always seemed to hate the work part of being a senator, which requires slogging through lots of boring negotiations with self-important blowhards.
That part is easy to understand and even sympathize with, but when he started to shoot for higher office, his handlers spun his persona into a legend that he was a rebel and a change agent, which he really wasn’t. McCain is a war hero who married the heiress to a beer distributorship and needed a job.
I’d have been interested in a single cut of McCain talking into the camera for two hours about how much he hated his job and how full of shit he thought everyone in Washington was, but the movie goes another way.
Instead, we get a parade of wraithlike politicians from the past speaking slowly, so as not to bust their obviously recent eye jobs and neck tucks, to offer McCain mild plaudits while soft-pedaling various unrelated atrocities they personally had hands in.
If you want to hear Henry Kissinger croak out that he and Dick Nixon carpet-bombed Vietnamese population centers on Christmas – after years of bombing civilians in Laos and Cambodia in similar fashion, a policy of “anything that flies on anything that moves” – for the sake of peace, in order to rescue POWs like McCain, then this is the film for you.
There’s also a ton of forced schlock-roasting by this parade of ex-adversaries. For instance, one of the things the press always liked about McCain is his rep for swearing a lot in off-the-record bull sessions (a rep his people, again, quickly marketed in 2000 with high-ick-factor stunts like the “Straight Talk Express“).
In an homage to this trait, and to the latitude offered by the HBO venue, almost everyone in the film forces up an F-bomb or two. So you get to hear Lindsey Graham use the word “asshole” and it’s all very humanizing.
I do hope someone makes a repeating-loop GIF of David Brooks saying “fucking asshole” (it’s at 55:39 of the movie) because it seriously looks like it’s the first time he’s ever said it, which is sort of funny but also not.
On the road with McCain in 2008, I was amazed by the degree to which he couldn’t let go of Iraq. Since he wasn’t really with the party on a lot of other issues – he’d railed against televangelists and waffled on abortion and didn’t get off on being a chainsaw-wielding, yee-hawing goon the way Bush did – this left him with nothing to run on.
For days on end he seemed to campaign exclusively in half-filled VFW halls, where he would try to chew up as much time as possible glad-handing and telling jokes, so he wouldn’t have to talk policy.
His big theme that year was “the surge is working” and that it was better to fight the terrorists “over there” than here in America. This was a complete non sequitur that McCain surely knew was absurd, but still he kept lugging these and other awful lines – like Obama running for “redistributionist-in-chief”– up the hill.
But rather than bravely face up to a policy error as he had on, say, the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina in 2000 or his 1983 vote against Martin Luther King day, he compounded the mistake by inviting the most vicious and virulent strain of modern conservatism onto his ticket.
This was piling one error on another, and you can draw a straight line from that second gaffe to Trump.
McCain was right to later distance himself from the movement Palin started, and his concession speech to Obama after his defeat that year was far classier than his audience was hoping for (“I can’t listen to this shit,” one of his supporters yelled at the Arizona Biltmore that night).
As for his occasional “maverick” stands against his own voters: Couldn’t he have saved himself the trouble of having to make those agonizing displays by just switching parties? Yes, it takes stones for a Republican to admit Barack Obama is not “an Arab,” that slavery is bad, or that the Dixie Chicks shouldn’t be burned alive. But most Democrats don’t have to call pressers on these issues.
McCain’s tragedy as a politician is that he is forever torn between his intense desire to pander to the bomb-humping, deregulating right and the fact that he so obviously thought most Republican voters – particularly the religious ones – were dipshits.
This schizophrenic brand of politics has left McCain marooned between two electorates that could never quite embrace him, and have since drifted apart at light speed.
For this, For Whom the Bell Tolls celebrates McCain as a relic of a past when “reaching across the aisle” was still possible. The film’s extraordinary lineup of gushing interviewees – Bush, Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, etc. – is an implicit endorsement of this idea.
It’s a paean to the pre-Trump age when “the middle” was still sought-after political territory, and the political class to which they all belong was not yet despised enough to make someone like Donald Trump a viable spite vote. If you need 103 minutes or so of their collective denial about this, please tune in.
Can we get another season of The Wire next time?