Over the weekend we lost two icons of American culture. Eighty-One year old former US Navy Hero, Presidential candidate, and longtime Senator from Arizona, John McCain passed away surrounded by family and friends on Saturday. The very next day, American play, and screen, writer Neil Simon passed away at the age of ninety-one. Both men defined their professions, and their era. Both men leave a legacy that will be studied for generations. With the deaths of John McCain and Neil Simon, the eras they helped create are gone, they were their last champions. We can now only reflect on their lives.
It is easier to look at the life of Neil Simon with reverence. The man wrote plays that were not that controversial, yet they influenced us all. Simon wrote stories that were critical and financial successes. The man penned The Odd Couple, The Brighton Beach Trilogy, Barefoot in the Park, Chapter Two, and Lost In Yonkers, and those are just a few from the top of the head. Lost in Yonkers won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Neil Simon won all the awards, broke all the box office records, and was the defining comedy playwright of the late twentieth century. Simon's name belongs on the Mount Rushmore of great American playwrights next to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill. There is no denying the influence Neil Simon has had on the American theater. He is legendary.
(Ed Note: I also owe Neil Simon a debt of gratitude in that the film version of Biloxi Blues made me want to study theater and I was fortunate enough to play Arty in Lost in Yonkers during my senior year of college and then played the father, Eddie, seven years later. I went from looking sixteen to looking forty in less than one decade. Thanks Neil.)
The death of John McCain is not as easy to find automatic reverence. Many people may be mad once they read that sentence, but it is the truth. When someone spends as long as they did in elective office as Senator McCain, there is a long list of accomplishments, and shortcomings, that need to be part of their life story.
Let's start with John McCain's military service. Anyone who questions what John McCain went through as a POW in Vietnam is a terrible kind of human being. No person, who holds any elected office in the United States of America, has any right to criticize John McCain's time as a POW. You are a coward, and not a patriot, if you use your platform to criticize a war hero. John McCain did not have to go to Vietnam, his father was a freaking US Admiral. John McCain was connected. He could have had multiple deferments and joined the Arizona National Guard, or claimed to be suffering from bone spurs, but he went to fight. He was captured, and he suffered. Navy John McCain is a goddamn hero. There is no debate.
Once out of the Navy, John McCain was a national hero. He was elected by the people of Arizona to serve in the US House of Representatives and then later to the US Senate. The early years of Congressman John McCain were not notable, except for one scandal. In 1989 Senator John McCain was one of five Us Senators accused of corruption in relation to Charles Keating, a chairman in a major savings and loans firm that was failing. Senator McCain was accused of being corrupt in trying to ease the government pressure on Keating. McCain was later cleared of doing anything illegal, but the Senate still said that the young senator exhibited "poor judgement". Those words would follow John McCain for the next decade.
The new millennium brought a new political narrative for Senator John McCain. The 2000 Republican presidential primary saw McCain challenge the establishment pick of George W Bush. The race started off well for McCain, who was using campaign finance as a center point of his campaign. The Arizona Senator won the first primary in New Hampshire, but the next step was South Carolina. McCain's ideas were not on the ballot, but his adopted Bangladeshi child was an issue. The George W Bush campaign never claimed to be involved, but many people loyal to the Texas Governor's campaign did spread rumors that McCain's adopted daughter was actually a blood relative that McCain had as a result of an affair with an African American prostitute. It will never be known if the lie worked, but Bush won South Carolina and marched his way to the Republican nomination. John McCain was destined to be back in his Senate seat.
Having lost the 2000 Republican presidential primary did not stop John McCain from pursuing his dream of campaign finance. The Republican from Arizona teamed up with John Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act in March of 2002 (the law is usually known as the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law). McCain's embarrassment from the Keating Five scandal was now clean because he was the author of America's first campaign finance regulation.
It was a hollow victory.
The loopholes left in the McCain-Feingold law helped to give rise to "dark money" and "Super PACS". The terribleness of the 2016 election is directly related to what was possible because of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. McCain-Feingold just put a band aid on a gaping wound.
Yet John McCain's reputation as a rebel in his party, a maverick one may say, was just starting to grow. The media loved Maverick McCain. He is the most frequent guest ever on Meet the Press. Once it was obvious that John McCain would be the 2008 Republican nominee for President, Fox News opened their doors to glowing coverage of the Arizona Senator. Senator John McCain became the goto guy for the Washington DC media. The maverick even landed in political hot water when he had to defend his opponent in the 2008 election from the seemingly slanderous notion of being an Arab. His defense did not work, Barrack Obama easily won the 2008 election for President and John McCain was once again heading back to the US Senate.
It also a very important part of John McCain's political career to point out the fact that he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. The rumor is that the maverick wanted to bring in former democrat Joe Lieberman, but the Republican party wanted the Governor of Alaska. The maverick lost, and the party won, and America now had to deal with the Palin part of American politics. The Republican Party has been forever altered because of the ascension of Sarah Palin, and John McCain is responsible for that.
Since 2008 Senator McCain tried to hold onto to his branding as a maverick. He opposed any policy that allowed for the US to use torture on captured enemy combatants, yet he continually supported the "wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq. It should be noted that McCain did express regret for these military actions in the last few months of his life. He sided with his party in trying to defeat the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), yet just a few months ago he was the deciding vote in keeping the law alive. McCain endorsed, and campaigned for Mitt Romney in 2012, yet he would not support Donald Trump in 2016. There was never a clear partisan path for McCain, that is why the Washington media loved him. That is why he was always on the television.
All the way up to last Saturday, John McCain was called a maverick by some circles, and a politically craven opportunist by other circles. Both are right. That is why looking back at the career of John McCain is so difficult. We all (well almost all) can agree with his heroism as a US Navy pilot, but his second act, his political career, is filled with opportunity and missteps. We must celebrate the man for his service, but we cannot excuse his shortcomings. The hero that is John McCain would not have accepted that.
Neil Simon and John McCain are now gone. They will never do another interview, they will never be in attendance for a standing ovation, they will never offer us another word of wisdom, they are gone. Both men were icons of their era, and they are now confined to being a part of the history of their eras. Society will move on, a new voice of the American theater will be crowned, a new maverick will arise in Washington DC. We can only hope that these new voices can be as influential as Neil Simon and John McCain. For better or worse.
Ryan David Kulik is the Head Editor for SeedSing and the other host of the X Millennial Man Podcast.
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