Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty

The Vietnam stuff really did happen; he really did the Vietnam stuff. Shattered and crumpled and beat to shit, starving, John McCain really did decline an arbitrary offer of early release from foreign torture prison; he really did choose what turned out to be four more years of torture and suffering and misery over violating the Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War, which mandated that captured officers agree to be released only in the chronological order of their capture.

After a first pass, I had to go back and re-word that description a little more carefully (and not only because “beat to shit” is a highly technical term!), for reasons that I think are worth looking into. Initially, I had the following, which strikes me as not quite right:

Shattered and crumpled and beat to shit, starving, he really did decline an arbitrary offer of early release from foreign torture prison; he really did choose what turned out to be four more years of torture and suffering and misery over skipping past the POWs who’d been in captivity longer than him.

It’s a small distinction, but it feels crucial to me. To his credit, in either description McCain possessed a strength of will and a sense of duty that defy comprehension and ought to fill anyone with awe. But the McCain of that latter description made a choice between his self-interest and that of others; the McCain of the former, the one I went with, the one I think is more accurate, made a choice between his self-interest and the strictures of an abstract code. The McCain of the latter description, perhaps, could not tolerate benefiting from an unfair gradient of privilege; the McCain of the former, the one I went with, the one I think is more accurate, could not tolerate breaking a rule. The latter description leaves open the possibility that McCain was motivated by fairness and justice and solidarity with his fellow human beings; the former, the one I went with, the one I think is more accurate, pegs him as committed to upholding an established order.

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That was 50 years ago. McCain is a few weeks from his 81st birthday now; he has recently been diagnosed with a glioblastoma, one of the deadliest and most aggressive forms of brain cancer; he almost certainly will never campaign for office ever again, and will be lucky to live more than another year: In a very real sense he is now, more than ever before in his life, accountable to nothing but his own sense of right and wrong. On Tuesday, in a spectacle that captivated all of news and politics media, he returned to the Senate bearing a fresh and gruesome scar from brain surgery over his left eye, where he cast a vote to proceed to debate on a cruel healthcare reform bill that, in whatever final form it takes, will by design make life materially harder (and inevitably in at least some cases shorter) for some number of millions of vulnerable Americans. Later that evening, undermining those who’d defended the earlier vote by saying a principled belief in debate does not imply support for a barbaric piece of legislation, he joined with a failed vote to pass the bill outright. In between these official acts, he delivered an outraged and passionate speech, railing against his own party for the degradations and violations of the normal legislative process it has committed in service of the very same bill.

And so the challenge, I guess—as has followed every other instance of McCain inveighing against the impolitic manners of the Republican Party but maintaining a record of broadly unremarkable lockstep party-line voting, all the times a certain class of centrist-minded observers have thought they were seeing him buck the GOP and then were confounded to learn he was just talking—is to make sense of this man. The popular charge from the left (and maybe from the right, who knows) is that he lacks spine, that his renowned Man Of Unwavering Principle act is a fraud, but it’s unconvincing for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, in both literal and figurative terms, just about the only bone John McCain didn’t break in Vietnam in 1967 was his spine: Whatever principles he had on him when he splashed into that Hanoi lake, he upheld them through at least one monstrously cruel challenge that I think we can all agree makes a Cabinet nominee vote look like rather small potatoes.

But also, and more importantly, the search for a through-line of fraudulence or cynicism or empty posturing in McCain’s long political career is a search for the wrong through-line, an assumption of the wrong convictions. It is based, I think, on the initially credible-seeming idea that what motivated McCain to refuse preferential treatment in that Hanoi prison was a sense of responsibility to others, a compassion that would seem in conflict with the cruel conservative agenda he has served in Congress for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. But maybe that’s just not it.

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This gets at the difference between those two descriptions of McCain from up above. The more empirically upstanding charge doesn’t require a difficult reconciliation between the John McCain who chose captivity over violating the Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War and the one who will rail against his political party for indecorous manner, procedural slovenliness, and even bad policy, but ultimately will not vote against its assaults on the well-being of the weak; it is also, I think, much more damning. He is now who he always has been: A guy who cares more about upholding the received order of things than he does about the hardships of any actual human beings. Including himself.

Back in 2000, when McCain was campaigning against George W. Bush, the writer David Foster Wallace wrote—at tedious length!—about how when McCain makes paeans to service, when he calls on young people to dedicate themselves to causes larger than their own self-interest, he does so with rare credibility for a national political figure; his own life story proves he is doing more than just making idealistic-sounding noise, that he knows of what he speaks. No one can dispute that McCain is, has been, a man of principle and profound conviction. But the principle that conviction serves, I think anybody can say by now, is a lot smaller and duller than a lot of people have wanted it to be. In the end, it’s just “Be a good boy.” He isn’t a fraud, but he also certainly isn’t a maverick. He is—he only is—a very good soldier.

Is that heroic? I can’t quite make myself say it isn’t. But the other POWs didn’t get sent home even a day earlier because of John McCain’s courage; his affronted defense of parliamentary procedure won’t save any sick poor kid’s practical access to health care. America prefers its heroism symbolic above all else.