Or, as our own Jodi Smith put it, “Hero and asshole are not fully incompatible labels.”
Over the course of his recent cancer diagnosis, his “yes” vote to debate the healthcare repeal and subsequent “nay,” McCain has been lauded as a hero, decried as a monster, and everything in between.
But human nature is without clear labels. We are all shades of gray. McCain has for much of his career enjoyed the kind of near-constant praise and adoration with infrequent and minor hiccups that only beloved white male politicians can. See also Bill Clinton. And, in fact, that’s how we arrive at our first joke.
At a Republican fundraiser in 1998, McCain made the following joke in the presence of donors:
“Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”
Chelsea Clinton was barely 18 at the time.
In a world absent of social media, McCain escaped this unscathed. When the Washington Post reported it, they didn’t include the “joke” itself, citing it as “too vile to repeat.” McCain faced no real consequence. Clinton hears similar “jokes” to this day; Reno would hear similar “jokes” until she died.
McCain would go on to apologize. To Bill Clinton. Not to Chelsea, Janet, or Hillary. The women the joke was on? Of little importance. The man in charge of them? Deserving of apology.
And that leads us to the other joke. This one from 1986.
Speaking to the National League of Cities and Towns in Washington, DC, McCain allegedly said: Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, “Where is that marvelous ape?”
Whenever a new star’s Twitter is mined for problematic comments, invariably we get inundated with replies calling for sensitivity, encouraging us to remember that people change and grow, that we shouldn’t shame people for things they said when they were young and dumb, or in a different cultural landscape.
The ’80s and ’90s were a different time. Yes. But in a week he spent being lauded for courage, for voting his conscience, for doing the right thing and being heralded as the “only” one who did the right thing while two Republican women and 48 Democrats went unsung, particularly Murkowski and Collins who faced threats of physical violence, these jokes, coated in misogyny and a diminished view of women, are part of McCain’s larger story.
McCain, like all people, acts in shades of gray. But if we must lionize and deify, let’s also include the dark moments.