What the media ignores: John McCain's militarism and misogyny

John McCain.

Democracy Now! has looked back at the life and legacy of John McCain, the six-term senator and two-time presidential candidate, who died on August 25 at the age of 81. McCain began his decades-long political career after he was a naval pilot in the Vietnam War, where he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in Hanoi in 1967. 

In 1973, upon McCain’s release from being a prisoner of war and his return to the United States, he wrote an article expressing support for President Nixon and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. After McCain’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1987, he consistently promoted war and U.S. military intervention abroad, including in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Iran. McCain joked about bombing Iran at a 2007 campaign event during his presidential bid against Barack Obama.

In 2008, McCain ran for president vowing to deploy a surge of US troops to Iraq. He failed to win the election, and faced criticism for his choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, who some say paved the way for the election of Donald Trump.

In the video below, Democracy Now! speaks to three guests: Mehdi Hasan, columnist for The Intercept, host of their Deconstructed podcast; Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink; and Norman Solomon, national coordinator of RootsAction. the full transcript is below.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, John McCain ran for president vowing to deploy a surge of U.S. troops to Iraq. He failed to win the election, and faced criticism for his choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, who some say paved the way for the election of Donald Trump.

Senator McCain was also known for reaching across the aisle and working with Democrats on key issues. In 1995, he worked with John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam War veteran, but Kerry had opposed the war, to provide political cover for President Clinton to normalize relations with Vietnam. Last year McCain made headlines when he came back to the Senate and voted “thumbs down” against the Republican-led repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

After McCain’s death, The Washington Post reports President Trump rejected issuing a White House statement praising McCain; instead, he tweeted, “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” unquote. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will deliver eulogies at McCain’s funeral at the National Cathedral on Saturday. McCain’s family has asked Trump not attend the service.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. In Washington, D.C., Mehdi Hasan is with us, columnist for The Intercept, host of their Deconstructed podcast. He’s also host of UpFront at Al Jazeera English. He’s been tweeting in response to McCain’s death. He wrote a piece there last year headlined “Despite What the Press Says, 'Maverick' McCain Has a Long and Distinguished Record of Horribleness.” Also in Washington is Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. And here in New York we’re joined by Norman Solomon, national coordinator of RootsAction. He’s also executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, among other books.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Norman, let’s begin with you. Your response to, well, the death of Senator McCain, his life and his legacy?

NORMAN SOLOMON: It’s really natural to have a lot of empathy for someone who suffered through brain cancer, admiration for people who withstood great hardships with pride and determination. However, what we’ve seen is really what could be called the phenomenon of obit omit—obituaries that are flagrantly in conflict with the real historical record. And when you stop and think about it, you know, journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history. And when history is falsified in the way that we’re getting in the last few couple of days now, several days, really, in the lead-up to Senator McCain’s death, it’s really a kind of a fraudulence on the part of the U.S. mass media. If John McCain was a maverick, it’s only a high jump over very low standards. And while there were certainly some, from a progressive standpoint, admirable characteristics that he had, he also was a huge enthusiast for war, which included after his return from being a prisoner in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Mehdi Hasan, your reflection on the career of John McCain, who died this weekend at his home in Arizona of brain cancer?

MEHDI HASAN: I think Norman is right to point to the obit-omit phenomenon. I think that’s one of the things I’ve taken away from the past couple of days, just watching some of the media coverage, which is less journalism and more hagiography. We know what McCain was good at and what he was praised for, but we’re not hearing about some of the darker sides of his political record. And there’s nothing wrong with bringing some light to the darker parts of a politician’s, a public figure’s record. This is not some sort of dancing on his grave. This is talking about what he did.

And, you know, look at his career. He was a man who was involved in a massive financial scandal in the late 1980s. He was part of the Keating Five, the savings-and-loan scandal. He agitated, as you mentioned, Amy, in your introduction, for the illegal and catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq—never apologized, never showed any regret for that. In 2008, he ran a nasty, desperate and bigoted campaign for the presidency of the United States, alongside Sarah Palin, which, as you pointed out, again, did pave the way for the election of Donald Trump and for Trumpism in 2016. These are things he should be held to account for. You also mentioned his famous and welcome vote—last-minute vote, I should add—against Obamacare last year—sorry, in defense of Obamacare, saving Obamacare, in a way, last year. But we don’t talk about his vote for the big Trump tax cuts, which also involved the killing of the Obamacare individual mandate. He was not a maverick, as Norman says. He was a maverick in name only.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, you had direct experience with Senator McCain, your organization. You’re co-founder of CodePink.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. We had constantly been lobbying John McCain to not support all these wars. Amy, I think it’s so horrible to be calling somebody a war hero because he participated in the bombing of Vietnam. I just spent the last weekend with Veterans for Peace, people who are atoning for their sins in Vietnam by trying to stop new wars. John McCain hasn’t done that. With his life, what he did was support wars from not only Iraq, but also Libya. He called John Kerry delusional for trying to make a nuclear deal with Iran, and threw his lot in with the MEK, the extremist group in Iran. He also was a good friend of Mohammad bin Salman and the Saudis. There was a gala for the Saudis in May when the crown prince was visiting, and they had a special award for John McCain. He supported the Saudi bombing in Yemen that has been so catastrophic. And I think we have to think that those who have participated in war are really heroes if they spend the rest of their lives trying to stop war, not like John McCain, who spent the rest of his life supporting war.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon?

NORMAN SOLOMON: And we really have to fault the mass media of the United States, not just for the last few days, but the last decades, pretending that somehow, by implication, almost that John McCain was doing the people of North Vietnam a favor as he flew over them and dropped bombs. You would think, in the hagiography that we’ve been getting about his role in a squadron flying over North Vietnam, that he was dropping, you know, flowers or marshmallows or something. He was shot down during his 23rd mission dropping bombs on massive numbers of human beings, in a totally illegal and immoral war.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to President Trump as candidate in 2016, when he attacked John McCain.

DONALD TRUMP: Somebody should run against John McCain, who has been, you know, in my opinion, not so hot. And I supported him. I supported him for president. I raised a million dollars for him. It’s a lot of money. I supported him. He lost. He let us down. But, you know, he lost. So I never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers. But—but, Frank—Frank, let me get to it.

FRANK LUNTZ: He’s a war hero.

DONALD TRUMP: He hit me—

FRANK LUNTZ: He’s a war hero.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s not a war hero.

FRANK LUNTZ: He’s a war hero.

DONALD TRUMP: He is a war hero—

FRANK LUNTZ: Five-and-a-half years in a POW camp.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.

AMY GOODMAN: Mehdi Hasan, “I like people who weren’t captured,” says now-President Trump.

MEHDI HASAN: I mean, whatever your views of John McCain, it was a disgraceful remark from a draft-dodging then-presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But let’s be clear: The Trump-McCain rivalry, animosity, which the media have been focusing on a lot, especially this morning with the flags back at full staff at the White House and, you know, this Washington Post report about Trump refusing to call him a hero and changing the statement and not saying anything positive about McCain—I mean, look, that is Donald Trump being the petty man-child that we know he is.

And, in fact, John McCain benefited from the fact that Donald Trump hated him, because it made him even more popular with the media, who could play this—and the media loves, you know, rows and personalities and disagreements. So the idea of McCain being this anti-Trump figure was great for them. And McCain obliged by giving them great rhetoric attacking Trump.

But when you look at the record, if you look at actual the voting record that FiveThirtyEight put together, McCain voted with Trump 80 percent of the time since 2016. He wasn’t some great rebel in actions. The thing about John McCain was he was great at rhetoric. The actions didn’t always match the rhetoric. And that is what the media gave him cover for.

Norman is right: The media have a lot to answer for when it comes to McCain. McCain cultivated the media. A lot of reporters on Twitter over the last couple of days have been saying he was their friend, which is a weird phrase to use for a politician. And McCain himself called the media “my base.” That’s how he got his reputation as a maverick. That’s how he’s getting all this hagiographical coverage right now on the cable news channels, from right and left alike.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back to 2015, when then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Senator John McCain lashed out at CodePink protesters, who were calling for former national security adviser and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to be arrested for war crimes. Our guest, Medea Benjamin, was one of the protesters whose voice is clearly audible.

CODEPINK PROTESTERS: Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes!

MEDEA BENJAMIN: In the name of the people of Chile!

CODEPINK PROTESTERS: Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes!

MEDEA BENJAMIN: In the name of the people of Vietnam!

CODEPINK PROTESTERS: Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes!

UNIDENTIFIED: We don’t want to hear from you anymore!

MEDEA BENJAMIN: In the name of the people of Chile! In the name of the people of Vietnam! In the name of the people of East Timor!

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: You know—

MEDEA BENJAMIN: In the name of the people of Cambodia! In the name of the people of Laos!

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’d like to say to my colleagues and to our distinguished witnesses this morning that I have—I’ve been a member of this committee for many years, and I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place about—you know, you’re going to have to shut up, or I’m going to have you arrested. If we can’t get the Capitol Hill police in here immediately—get out of here, you low-life scum.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator McCain in 2015. Medea, I heard your voice a little time before that, talking about holding Kissinger accountable for the people of Laos and Cambodia.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the question is: Why would John McCain bring in Henry Kissinger as an expert to tell us how we should move forward with U.S. foreign policy? From the time that in the late '90s John McCain threw his lot in with the Project for the New American Century and the neocons, John McCain has been looking towards people who see militarism and U.S. intervention and the U.S. right to overthrow other governments as his ticket—I would say, for his personal ambitions. And I think, really, calling us “low-life scum,” instead of looking at the record of Henry Kissinger, or let's just look at the record of John McCain himself, and say these are not the people that we should be lionizing.

MEHDI HASAN: What’s interesting about that exchange, Amy, is not just the whole defense of Kissinger and a militarized foreign policy, but the language used. Here are antiwar protesters in the Senate using their democratic right to protest, and he calls them “low-life scum.” And yet, we’re being told for the last 48 hours that John McCain was the embodiment of civility in U.S. politics, he was a bastion of decency. Even Bernie Sanders used that phrase. And yet, even McCain himself probably wouldn’t recognize that description. He was a well-known cranky and rude and abusive figure. He called antiwar protesters “low-life scum.” He mocked Chelsea Clinton as ugly. He made jokes about rape and spousal abuse. He famously called his Vietnamese captors “gooks” and said, “I won’t apologize for that.” He used the C-word against his wife in public. He has a long history of not behaving in a civil manner. He ran a presidential campaign in 2008, Amy, where at the rallies of McCain and Palin people shouted out “terrorist,” “traitor,” “off with his head,” “kill him,” in reference to Barack Obama. Today we condemn Donald Trump for holding rallies where they say “lock her up.” Where is the condemnation of those rallies in 2008 that John McCain presided over?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to John McCain in 2008, as you’re describing, but this was in New Hampshire at a town hall meeting when he defended his presidential opponent, Barack Obama, his rival, in the face of constituents spouting racist conspiracy theories. This is a clip.

McCAIN SUPPORTER: I got to ask you a question. I do not believe in—I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not—he’s not—he’s an Arab. He is not—

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No, ma’am. No, ma’am.

McCAIN SUPPORTER: No?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about. He is not.

AMY GOODMAN: There are so many levels to address this on, Mehdi Hasan. If you could start?

MEHDI HASAN: Yeah, I mean, look, I’ve been thinking about this clip a lot for the last couple days. It’s gone viral. It’s had millions of views on Twitter. And it’s being held out by a lot of people as, you know, McCain’s moment of nobility in 2008, where he defended Barack Obama, compared to Donald Trump, of course, who spread birther conspiracies about Obama being a secret Muslim.

And, you know, some of us have criticized that. I’ve always found that clip uncomfortable, to say the least, because even if you give John McCain the benefit of the doubt and say it was a spur-of-the-moment, off-the-cuff response to the woman, he didn’t address her point that Obama was an Arab. There is this weird disjunction, where she says, “He’s an Arab,” and he says, “No, he’s a decent family man,” which seems to say that, “Well, hold on, are Arabs not decent family men?” Now, McCain defenders would say, “No, he wasn’t referring to the Arab point; he was preempting her line about—she was going to say he was a terrorist or a noncitizen.”

But the point is, there was that prejudice already back then in 2008, well before Donald Trump, in the Republican base, this animosity towards Muslims, towards Arabs, towards foreigners. And John McCain never took the opportunity—certainly not in that exchange—to question the underlying bigoted premise, in the way that Colin Powell did, for example, at the same time. He went on TV at the same time, Powell, and he said, “Look, is Barack Obama an Arab or a Muslim? No, he’s not. But so what if he is?” That “So what if he is?” was never said by John McCain. In fact, John McCain ran a campaign in 2008, which, again, I’ll say it again, we keep forgetting and airbrushing, in which Obama was presented to the American people as a terrorist, as a friend of terrorists. That’s outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, there’s a spectrum of problems here. I mean, if you go to the broader one that Mehdi was just talking about, we’ve had a whole history, from George W. Bush through Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton, of people saying, “Oh, we support Muslims; Muslims are part of the American family,” while those same leaders are slaughtering Muslims in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Iraq, and hoping to do it, in many cases, elsewhere in the Middle East. So, this whole notion that you say a few platitudes and that justifies your militaristic and really mass-murderous, truly, foreign policy is a problem.

When you get to that specific clip, which has gotten huge play in the last 48 hours, the reality is that even more disturbing than the off-the-cuff response from Senator McCain is the approach from the mass media of the United States, which seems clueless—just it’s an irony-free zone—absolutely not addressing what the real message or a key part of that message was, which is, if you’re an Arab, then you’re not a decent family man, but if you’re a decent family man, then, oh, no, you’re not really an Arab. What an ugly, corrosive and truly racist message that is.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the major funeral memorial at the National Cathedral this weekend that President Bush will eulogize McCain, President Obama will eulogize McCain, and people are now saying that McCain made clear he didn’t even want Trump there?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, well, Trump is another brand of militaristic foreign policy that I think has to be opposed just as much as the particular brand that his buddy Lindsey Graham and McCain himself embodied. There’s been a lot of coverage in The Washington Post and elsewhere in the last day bemoaning that, with McCain gone, the traditional militarism from the Pentagon and the CIA and so forth won’t be as strong against Trump. And it’s simply, in a way, a falling-out between McDonald’s and Burger King. These two factions of the Republican Party are both so vicious and so militaristic, embodying what Dr. King called the “madness of militarism.”

AMY GOODMAN: Mehdi Hasan?

MEHDI HASAN: And what’s so really ironic about the whole kind of McCain-Trump split on policy, when it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration is the most hawkish administration we’ve ever seen when it comes to Iran. We’re seeing them now ramping up efforts to target Iran in terms of breaking out of the Iran deal, in terms of appointing this new office at the State Department to keep an eye on Iran. You’ve got Iran hawks at every level of the Trump administration. If Donald Trump in future years, God forbid, does go to war with Iran, well, if John McCain had been alive, he’d be egging Donald Trump on. We know that. We saw the clip at the beginning of the show where he was singing jokingly about bombing Iran. So, yeah, I think Norman is spot-on to say, you know, the actual differences there when it comes to the mass-murderous foreign policy between a Trump and a McCain, not that much.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact right now the White House is flying its flag at full staff, whereas in places like the Washington Monument they have them lowered. Medea, The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight reports McCain voting with Trump 83 percent of the time.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. I think we should really look at this in the larger context of the glorification of militarism, the way McCain was in favor of the expansion of NATO, threatening towards both China and Russia. This is all in the benefit of the weapons industry. We can see Lockheed Martin doing a eulogy, which they did for John McCain. So, let’s remember, we want to thank those who don’t fight in wars, the conscientious objectors, the peacemakers, and recognize John McCain of a symbol of the glorification of military that we have to fight against.