What you do with the lowest point in your life is probably going to define you for the rest of your days. So it was with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose funeral Saturday will be the iconic religious spectacle of our time, though probably not the great national awakening he hoped it would be.
As everyone knows, McCain's plane was shot down over Hanoi on his 23rd bombing mission. Though permanently maimed by injuries from the crash, he was captured and tortured off and on for five and a half years, but because men who had been prisoners longer than him were not released first, he refused an offer of early release, which was supposed to please his father, the naval commander in the Pacific. His treatment worsened.
But captivity and torture or even his signed confession were not the low point of his life. That, according to McCain's own confession, was his involvement in the Keating savings-and-loan scandal in the 1980s and his punishment for the ethical lapses that he committed for Keating as a freshman senator from Arizona.
It was a moment he shared, bitterly, with Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, who was one of the six senators who sat in judgment upon him.
To help savings and loan banks that were struggling to profit from mortgage lending in an inflationary climate, the Reagan administration turned them loose in 1981 to invest where they could make the big money. They did and nearly the entire industry crashed. A few operators, like the smallest fish in the thrift pond, Jim McDougal of Arkansas, were targeted and went to prison for his reckless investments. McDougal had made the (political) mistake, long before starting his little S&L, of investing in some remote Ozark acreage with newlyweds Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Charles Keating, an anti-pornography crusader who ran the big Lincoln Savings and Loan and its parent company, made friends in 1981 with the former Navy hero John McCain, who was starting his political career in Phoenix. Keating helped bankroll McCain's races for U.S. representative and senator and flew McCain and his wife to vacations at his lavish estate in Cat Cay, Bahamas. When the company was tanking and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board closed in, Keating needed help staving them off. He went to McCain and four other senators, all Democrats, whom he had given $1.3 million in campaign cash.
Although he was already having misgivings about Keating, who called him a wimp behind his back, McCain arranged the first meeting where the five senators leaned on the head of the FHLBB. The agency backed off a while to give Lincoln a chance to regroup from its recklessness. Taxpayers eventually ponied up $3.4 billion to cover Keating's losses and he spent four and a half years in prison.
McCain and the other four senators were hauled before the Senate Ethics Committee, where they sat stone-faced in front of the TV cameras while their deeds on behalf of Keating were recounted. That, McCain would recall, was the lowest point in his life.
Pryor was one of the six reluctant ethics judges, three Democrats and three Republicans. He had a massive heart attack during the proceedings and was replaced for a spell. When Pryor emerged from the hospital, his replacement insisted on quitting and Pryor returned for the judgment in 1991. All five got a slap on the wrist, but McCain and John Glenn, also a member, were spared with only a rebuke that they had used bad judgment.
McCain was humiliated but also furious with the committee. For the next five years, he never spoke to the perpetually gregarious Pryor. On the elevator, in the cloakroom, in the corridors or on the floor he never acknowledged Pryor's existence. Pryor thought it was at least preferable to the legendary profanity-laced tongue-lashings McCain was noted for.
Pryor did not run again in 1996. On his last day, after a few enconiums for departing senators like him, Pryor was sitting in his chair cleaning out his desk when he spied McCain lurching toward him across the empty House floor. In his oral history in 2000, Pryor recalled half-jokingly that he wondered whether McCain might finally just sock him. Instead, McCain grabbed Pryor by the shoulders, pulled him up and hugged him while sobbing, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I hope you'll forgive me."
It was a thoughtful little gesture, but McCain did something else that defined him. Although he was never very candid about the Keating affair, he said he had been wrong and he devoted himself for the rest of his career to reversing the corrupting influence of money on politics and thus on all the work of government, including right here in Arkansas.
He fought and finally succeeded modestly in regulating the flow of big money into political campaigns. McCain thought his deeds for Keating had proved to be trivial but he realized that his own weakness hinted at democracy's gravest crisis: the purchase of influence by moneyed people and groups.
McCain and Russ Feingold's campaign reform bill passed in 2002 over the objections of his party and its leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who joined forces in the next dozen years with his party's Supreme Court majority to eviscerate the law and make the corruption a thousand times worse.
Tears might have been shed Saturday for that regret, too..