The Media Today

The complicated task of covering John McCain’s final days

May 22, 2018

As a war hero, former presidential candidate, influential voice in the Senate, and ready quote, John McCain has been a constant presence in the public eye for decades. His final book, The Restless Wave, is out today. McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis provides the opportunity for a slow motion, living eulogy, and the press has responded with a steady drumbeat of coverage.

The details of McCain’s life—his heroism in Vietnam, scandal-marred early years in politics, cross-aisle friendships with Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, presidential runs in 2000 and 2008, and years as an elder statesman—are well known. His long and complicated career presents challenges for journalists who need to encapsulate his life in a few sentences. How does one cover a towering figure in American politics without slipping into hagiography? As The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes in a recent profile of McCain at rest, he “has long been both a flawed politician and a larger figure of history.”

McCain’s image as a maverick willing to subvert his party to stick to political principles has always been as much branding exercise as reality. His “Straight Talk Express”—the slogan of his campaign bus in 2000—and willingness to appeal to the better angels of our political nature sit alongside his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 and his endorsement in 2016 of the man who questioned his war service on the campaign trail.

In the Trump era, McCain has been drawn into a series of controversies not of his making, beginning with Trump’s 2015 statement that he liked “people who weren’t captured.” More recently, a morbid comment about McCain’s prognosis by communications aide Kelly Sadler sparked a fresh wave of outrage. Last summer, just after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he became an unlikely Democratic hero in the Senate for voting against the Obamacare repeal.

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McCain’s health is preventing him from touring in support of his book, but the making of his legacy has already begun. He’ll be the subject of an HBO documentary, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, debuting on Memorial Day, and those writing on his career will have decades of freely given quote to choose from, and the difficult task of framing his contradictions.

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Below, more on the coverage of a notable, complicated life.


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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.