The Restless Wave by John McCain and Mark Salter

Politics runs the gamut from head-butting battles to bipartisan friendships. John McCain has experienced both extremes during his thirty-year career as a United States Senator. Now, challenged by life-threatening brain cancer, he has written The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations with his long-time literary collaborator Mark Salter (Simon & Schuster, 416 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In this memoir, McCain looks back and evaluates his contributions to American politics.

Whenever McCain—a Vietnam War hero who endured unimaginable hardships when he was held prisoner in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years—encountered a problem for which he saw a political solution, he pursued it anywhere in the world. He explains his good and bad performances without boasting or excusing himself. In doing so in this book, he resolved some questions that I had but were never satisfactorily answered in the news media over the past decade or two.

McCain’s principal efforts focused on democracy and human rights, immigration, and rendition and torture of prisoners. Late in the book, he cites his ideals to provide guidelines for American leaders based on our historical responsibility to humanity.

Both directly and indirectly, McCain finds fault with the decisions and demeanor of President Trump and what McCain characterizes as “odd characters involved in [his] campaign.”

Similarly, he condemns the behavior of Vladimir Putin and classifies him as “our implacable foe,” as well as a criminal who “might be the wealthiest person on earth” based on stealing from the Russian people. With that belief foremost in mind, McCain analyzes Russia’s goals and its association with the vulnerable former Soviet republics, where he frequently has traveled to support their quests for freedom.

McCain also finds fault with his own leadership role. He berates himself for supporting the invasion of Iraq and accepting the lie that the nation had weapons of mass destruction. To his credit, during 2004-07, he repeatedly visited Iraq and Afghanistan and questioned military strategies, particularly the counterinsurgency program and manpower needs. He ventured to the Middle East throughout the Arab Spring.

Along with his efforts to improve the world, McCain also evaluates his 2008 run for the presidency. These chapters are the most insightful because McCain accepts responsibility for losing the election.

“I had a full opportunity to persuade Americans they should trust me with the security and prosperity of our civilization,” he writes. “I didn’t convince them.” He also notes that running for president, “on the whole,” was “the privilege of a lifetime.”

McCain has written six other books with Salter, who has worked on his staff for eighteen years. Last year, Elaine S. Povich produced John McCain: American Maverick, a coffee-table-sized collection of photographs and text, which The Restless Wave  complements.

Even if you had never heard of John McCain, reading The Restless Wave would make you want to pick him for your team. He is relentless in his pursuit of helping oppressed people predicated on his appreciation of American exceptionalism.

—Henry Zeybel