With John McCain, you never quite knew. That was a big part of his appeal, one of the things that made him interesting, and also one of the things that drove people who value ideological consistency a bit batty.
As a professed maverick, Mr. McCain, who died Saturday at the age of 81, was bound to make somebody unhappy. Though for much of his career his votes on the Senate floor were mostly along party lines, his periodic challenges to Republican orthodoxy made him more popular among independents, Democrats and the tattered remnants of his party’s moderate wing than with the absolutists in the party’s base. Five years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp appeared to have left him with a pretty good idea of who he was, an ability to think for himself and the capacity to tune out partisan noises.
He had principles, and he had flaws, from time to time betraying those principles — most grievously in the 2008 presidential campaign. But in a Senate mostly devoid of the kind of commanding figures who once roamed its halls, he was a rare bird. And he could surprise you.
Especially his fellow Republicans. At a time of confusion and nastiness over immigration, it is worth recalling that he joined with Senator Edward Kennedy in 2005 and then again in 2007 to push a grand compromise that paired stronger controls at the border with a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 or so million undocumented immigrants.
At a time when the political system is once again drowning in money from special interests, it is worth recalling that back in the early 2000s he co-wrote, with Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, a landmark bill to tighten the post-Watergate campaign finance reform laws.
At a time when the man who now occupies the White House and his cabinet factotums deny the plain reality of climate change, it is worth recalling that back in the early 2000s, Mr. McCain and Joseph Lieberman, then a Connecticut Democrat, drafted the first serious bipartisan bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon.
The campaign finance reform effort eventually succeeded, named for a companion bill in the House sponsored by Chris Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, and Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts. The climate and immigration bills did not succeed, partly for want of Republican support. But even in defeat, Mr. McCain, through his willingness to tackle thorny and even politically toxic issues, gave hope for the future. His example still does.
A military man to the core, and the son and grandson of two decorated admirals, Mr. McCain held views on foreign and defense policy that were relentlessly hawkish; He lobbied hard for the ruinously misguided invasion of Iraq, as well as the bombing of Libya. At the same time, and despite his brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, he strongly supported Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam.
As a politician with national aspirations beyond the Senate, Mr. McCain has a decidedly mixed legacy. His 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush inspired something close to rapture among normally cynical political reporters, who were impressed equally by his refusal to exploit his five years of suffering in North Vietnam, his ready access to the media and what the writer Joe Klein described in the Jan. 17, 2000 issue of The New Yorker as “an unrelenting candor that verges on self-reproach.”
Mr. McCain’s decision against demanding an eye for an eye when Mr. Bush and his henchmen savaged him and his family in the South Carolina primary campaign, one of the most vicious and depressing in modern times, earned him further credit. Yet he lost it all, and then some, when he deployed the same tactics against Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign. Having stood up at one point to a woman who called Mr. Obama an untrustworthy “Arab” — Mr. McCain seized her microphone and said: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen” — he then allowed his own campaign, and himself, to descend to the same debased level, portraying Mr. Obama as a shadowy, untrustworthy and even unpatriotic figure. No campaign decision drew more criticism than his ill-considered selection of a running mate in Sarah Palin, whom he hardly knew and who went so far as to charge Mr. Obama with “palling around with terrorists.”
Mr. McCain’s final years in the Senate were a similar mix of independence and fealty to party norms. Last summer, he dramatically entered the Senate chamber and cast a decisive vote against the administration’s ghastly health care bill, partly on grounds that it had been concocted in haste and without hearings and had thus failed the basic requirements of sound legislative process. But not long afterward, he voted in favor of a similarly ill-conceived, backward-looking tax bill. (Mr. McCain was absent for medical reasons when the bill came up for final passage three weeks later and he did not cast a vote).
That vote provided precisely the kind of opportunity for one last display of the adventurous bipartisanship for which Mr. McCain was so well known. It was not to be. Still, there had been plenty such moments in a long and distinguished career. Mr. McCain was a charming, imperfect man, driven by a code of honor and self-aware enough to know when he had violated it. A Senate where the phrase “happy warrior” is an oxymoron will miss him.