The recent death of Arizona Senator John McCain brought back some personal memories. He was the last Republican presidential candidate I supported.

In 2000 I voted for McCain in the New Hampshire primary because I considered his opponent, George W. Bush, to be a lightweight. McCain had been a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for 5 years and showed extraordinary courage, refusing early repatriation as a matter of honour and principle. Bush had secured a safe berth, flying the Texas Air National Guard, securing the border with Mexico.

With Bush's election and the subsequent strategic blunder of Iraq, compounded by Guantanamo and torture, I left the Republican Party after 40 years, looking back only once, briefly, in 2008.

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McCain's story is of sin and redemption, lapses in judgment, confessed, then redeemed through principled action in remorse.

Tortured during his captivity, McCain finally broke and signed a forced "confession". He never fully forgave himself for what most would recognise as inevitable succumbing. But, in Hemingway's terms, he became "strong in the broken places", and later stood up in the Senate to condemn the use of torture by the Bush/Cheney administration as unlawful and contrary to "who we are, as Americans". His principled stance forced the torturers to stand down.

Early in his Senate career, he succumbed to the wiles of a big-time campaign donor Charles Keating, who had used a hypocritical anti-pornography campaign as a springboard to defraud the elderly. McCain was found by the Senate ethics committee to have used bad judgment in asking bank regulators to intervene on Keating's behalf.

The Keating scandal nearly ended his career. But subsequently, McCain joined forces with liberal Senator Ross Feingold to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that limited the ability of big money donors to influence Congress.

During McCain's Vietnam imprisonment, in 1971, then former navy Lt. John Kerry became the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans against the War, incurring the wrath of McCain and his fellow prisoners.

In 1993, these two, Senators from different parties, went to Vietnam and were eventually instrumental in "ending" the war, with America finally establishing diplomatic relations with its former enemy.

Jay Kuten
Jay Kuten

During the 2000 presidential campaign McCain waffled over the question of the Confederate battle flag. He soon acknowledged his failure to state clearly his sympathy with blacks who found the flag offensive. His forebears had fought for the rebellion, but that needed to remain past history, not present insult. Then came the 2008 campaign for the presidency. I had my doubts about his opponent, then Senator Barack Obama, because Obama had voted to grant immunity to communication companies who had participated in warrantless surveillance. McCain, whom I had supported, chose Sarah Palin for his running mate. Her first speech identified her as a divisive, fear-mongering faux populist — a forerunner of Donald Trump — and caused me to change my vote and my travel plans. I drove to New Hampshire to campaign for Obama.

I was to be disappointed by Obama but the thought of Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency made my decision for me.


McCain's last acts of redemption occurred after then candidate Trump cast aspersions on McCain's heroism for having been a captive. Trump, who evaded the draft for Vietnam, got his answer when McCain voted down the attempt to destroy Obama's legacy healthcare.

McCain's final statement was in silence. Both Presidents Bush and Obama were invited to give eulogies at McCain's funeral. President Trump was pointedly not invited and exhibited his pettiness in refusing any formal praise invoking McCain's heroism.

A true hero need not be always perfect, but to acknowledge his failings and then to act not only to correct the personal failure but to help put right the failure of the society, the community, that fostered that shortcoming. That is the mark of genuine heroism — strong at the broken places.

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable