Books of The Times: In ‘The Restless Wave,’ John McCain Says America Is Still Exceptional

Books of The Times

Then presidential candidate John McCain on the campaign trail in 2008 in Phoenix.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

Senator John McCain has sustained a long political career by seeming to have it both ways: praised as a fiery maverick when times are bland, and as a bipartisan consensus-seeker when they’re not.

This isn’t so much an accusation as an observation — one that McCain himself repeatedly alludes to in “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations,” his latest collaboration with his former chief-of-staff Mark Salter. The ailing McCain, who learned last year that he had brain cancer, makes clear it might also be their last.

The tough-guy titles of their previous books — “Worth the Fighting For,” “Character Is Destiny” and “Hard Call,” among them — spoke to McCain’s obstinate, martial side. They also exhibited an adamant righteousness that “The Restless Wave,” with its rolling title, occasionally strives for but fails to convey. You can see McCain in this book struggling to reconcile himself to what his Republican Party has largely become, even if he declines to come right out and say so; aside from a pointed rebuke of the Iowa Republican Steve King for his “ethnocentrism” and “crude insults,” McCain mostly resorts to the gentle politicking of the blind item.

“To refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic,” he writes in his preface, a scolding he directs at no one in particular.

One of the striking aspects of this new book is how often McCain — who says his dire medical prognosis leaves him “freer” to speak his mind and vote his conscience “without worry” — insists on playing it safe. The six-term senator from Arizona slips in a few careful mentions of Donald J. Trump, and expresses concern about the rancor that has overtaken the country, but he generally stops short of calling out the president or his cabinet, issuing just a brief eyeroll at the “thoughtless America First ideology” now ascendant in the White House. Blink and you might miss his critique.

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CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

But then “The Restless Wave” seems to be trying to do several things at once: reflect on the past, express gratitude, burnish a legacy. As the subtitle suggests, this book is largely appreciative. McCain, at 81, would prefer to “celebrate a happy life lived in imperfect service to a country made of ideals, whose continued success is the hope of the world,” rather than linger on how the current state of the union might come up short.

“We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself,” he writes. “We are blessed, and in turn, we have been a blessing to humanity.”

McCain takes to this kind of patriotic hyperbole, and always has. As much as he comes under intermittent fire for being more of an opportunistic flip-flopper than a steadfast straight-talker, he consistently returns again and again to what seems for him to be a core commitment: a fervent belief in American exceptionalism.

“Our founding ideals and our fidelity to them at home and in our conduct in the world make us exceptional,” he writes in a chapter that is otherwise about the American use of torture after 9/11. McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, recalls being disgusted when he learned that the United States was using “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, which would fit most people’s definition of “cruel, inhuman or degrading.”

“My captors had, on the whole, treated prisoners more humanely than the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib treated prisoners,” he writes. (He recently called on the Senate to reject the nomination of Gina Haspel as director of the C.I.A.; Haspel oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured.)

“The Restless Wave” contains a few other eruptions of unmitigated candor. McCain concedes that the Iraq War, which had his unequivocal support from the very beginning, “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake.”

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McCain with his daughter Meghan McCain, in Arizona earlier this year.CreditMeghan McCain, via Associated Press

But his faith in his country’s beneficence remains undimmed. Exceptionalism, for him, apparently has less to do with the harsh reality of what happens when the United States wields its power abroad than the presumed goodness of its intentions. The country’s behavior, he says, should match its ideals; and when it doesn’t, the exceptionalism still holds — it’s simply a matter of getting the behavior to fall into line.

On the subject of Sarah Palin, the gun-toting populist he picked as his presidential running mate in 2008, he expresses little regret, saying he “liked her right away.” He praises her as “uncannily self-possessed,” a quick study who performed “slightly better” than Joe Biden in their vice presidential debate. (Perhaps realizing how that might be too generous, he adds: “At worst, the contest was a draw.”) The line from Palin to Trump is one he doesn’t touch, let alone contemplate.

If there’s a villain in this book it’s “our implacable foe” Vladimir Putin, an “audacious despot” who gets a steady flagellation over the course of two chapters. McCain admits to receiving the dossier compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele, outlining Trump’s possible ties to Russia, and passing it on to James Comey, then the director of the F.B.I. Anyone who doesn’t like what McCain did “can go to hell,” though he underscores that he’s agnostic about the dossier’s contents.

Just like McCain is agnostic about Trump in general. In his cautious assessment, “it is hard to know what to expect from President Trump.” Seeing McCain strain to be optimistic is almost uncomfortable to read, as he strenuously points to “glimmers of hope” that Trump might yet take on the “moral obligation” of being the “leader of the free world.”

What McCain means by this obligation is more American involvement on the world stage, more American intervention. He’s an unabashed proponent of regime change, and a good portion of “The Restless Wave” is given over to recounting how besieged peoples from other lands have been grateful for American support.

McCain recalls the hero’s welcome he received in Burma in 2012, after a yearslong campaign on behalf of democracy activists there: “There is nothing so rewarding as contributing, even if only in the most modest way, to the defense of another human being’s dignity, all the more so when the person is otherwise a stranger to you.”

Assigning a special nobility to his country’s role abroad, even (or especially) now, is a way for McCain to keep believing that Americans are ultimately united, instead of terribly divided. Domestic politics are too disappointing, too grinding, too inglorious. “The Restless Wave” is a wistful book; McCain wants to rally Americans around helping an imperiled world, rather than accept that the call might be coming from inside the house.