The Restless Wave (John McCain & Mark Salter)

This book covers a lot of ground, from Senator’s McCain’s military service background and early years to the illness that ultimately took his life. Most of the material is grouped in thematic chapters, however, so the story of his life & career as a whole is not related chronologically. The story is well told, interesting, and honest – although we personally disagreed with many of the author’s ideas and wasn’t won over by his explanations herein.

One can’t help but be impressed by all the foreign trips McCain made during his years in the Senate, the contacts that he made with dissidents, and the often dramatic events that he witnessed. The description of Vladimir Putin attending the Munich Security Conference in 2007 and going out of his way to attack McCain and the rest of the US delegation, for example, is riveting. Or McCain’s account of how he came by Michael Steele’s Russian dossier on President-Elect Donald Trump in late 2016 and chose to pass it on to then FBI Director James Comey.

On some international policy issues, it seems McCain was clearly right, as for example in supporting the surge in Iraq that ultimately averted a disastrous collapse. As for the decision to invade Iraq in the first place (2003), which in hindsight seems like a debatable call, McCain blames the erroneous intelligence estimate that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.” And in various other cases, one might conclude that McCain was too ready for confrontation (and in some cases intervention) in disputes that weren’t necessarily of strategic importance to the US.

McCain played a less impressive role in domestic politics. For example the McCain-Feingold election reform bill that he succeeded in putting over the top may actually have reinforced (rather than diminishing) the importance of money in politics. And the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill that he and other senators worked on in 2013 passed the Senate by a comfortable margin, but it was dead on arrival on the House. As for McCain’s “thumbs down” vote on repeal of Obamacare, his notion that the upshot would be a bipartisan compromise on healthcare doesn’t seem to be panning out.

The account of McCain’s presidential run is interesting, but bereft of details on the policy differences between him and Barack Obama. Was McCain more interested in getting the Republican nomination than winning the election, as is suggested, for example, by his proposal to “suspend the campaign” and reschedule the first presidential debate so that the candidates could huddle with the president and congressional leaders to craft a bipartisan response to the economic emergency that was unfolding in the fall of 2008.

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