DATELINE 07.27.2017: I remember when, in 1999, not long before his landslide primary win in New Hampshire over George W. Bush, Senator John McCain was waiting to speak to a public gathering in Phillips Exeter Academy’s Assembly Hall.
He was signing some autographs in the Latin Study and I asked him to sign a book for my daughter. When I told him her name he asked, “What kind of name is that?
“It’s Arabic,” I answered. “It means Faith in God.”
“That’s beautiful. I’m happy to sign it.”
As he handed the book back he quipped, “Is she old enough to vote?”
No, I answered, but said she’d be in the audience listening to his speech.
“Tell her to take good notes.”
McCain’s a good man to take notes on. Contradictory, flawed, complicated, good.
McCain’s often the face of how complicated America can be – unrepentantly American – sometimes right, sometimes wrong,
This week, as McCain, diagnosed with brain cancer, returned to Washington on a private jet so that he could perhaps vote to repeal Obamacare – on repeal bills primarily written by 13 privileged white men sitting in a room – I’ve thought about McCain a lot.
I’ve often disagreed with McCain, especially his hawkish views on the use of military power, but I most strongly remember the times he stood against torture and bigotry.
He’s one of the few, when times are dark, who can for a moment rise above the hordes and shine some light on who we are, on who we’re challenged to be.
It’s time for him to rise up again.
Some of those memories include a horrible one from 2000, when George W. Bush’s campaign supporters, fearing a primary defeat in South Carolina, smeared McCain with innuendo and racist rumors, including McCain having fathered a “Negro child,” a shameless reference to Bridget, a young orphan from Bangladesh whom the McCain’s adopted in 1991 – whom they dearly love.
Another is from the 2004 campaign when, even as a loyal Republican supporting President Bush, McCain came to Senator John Kerry’s defense as he was being viciously SwiftBoated, calling ads questioning Kerry’s patriotism “dishonest and dishonorable.”
In response to a supporter in Minnesota who said he was “scared” of an Obama presidency McCain replied, “I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
At a town hall meeting, when a woman said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab. He’s not – ,” McCain took the mic from her and replied:
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
That’s who we are meant to be.
Few candidates would have had the character to handle such exchanges – putting their electoral prospects at risk – with such grace.
Certainly he’s not without flaws.
After a flawed McCain survived the 1987 Keating Five scandal, which he called “the worst moment of my life,” he stood up and became an advocate for campaign-finance reform.
Most flawed was his pick of Sarah Palin. That a man so committed to America, a Vietnam vet – a naval aviator with the courage and grit to survive five-and-a-half years as POW – to be so reckless in choosing a running mate was dismaying, especially to those torn between admiration for McCain and concern over Barack Obama’s inexperience.
That, combined with the September, 2008 financial crisis, doomed McCain and led to Obama’s election, with 365 electoral votes.
McCain was gracious in his concession speech, saying “America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”
Yes, there was bitterness, and resentment over his loss to a man whom he felt was fundamentally less prepared to be Commander-in-Chief than he, which led, I believe, McCain to conspire – through a prolonged silence – with the GOP in trying to delegitimize and demean Obama’s presidency.
McCain’s foreign policy is too hawkish for me: he supported the invasion of Iraq and wanted US troops to remain for “maybe a” hundred years. He’s opposed to independence for Palestinians and wants to roll back nuclear accords with Iran.
Yet, he defended Clinton aide Huma Abedin, calling her “… a dedicated American and a loyal public servant,” and when Donald Trump disparaged the Khan family McCain told them “your son was the best of America, and the memory of his sacrifice will make us a better nation — and he will never be forgotten.”
When McCain fought to have a report on torture released he said: “I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values. . . .”
Today, there’s a certain irony to the fact that the Republican Party flew McCain to Washington, ostensibly to help repeal the Affordable Care Act.
They got more than they bargained for.
I cannot imagine any American resenting the medical care that McCain is receiving from the Mayo Clinic, nor anyone being displeased that, six weeks after being shot on a baseball diamond in Alexandria VA, Rep.Steve Scalise has been discharged from the hospital.
Those are outcomes we want for all Americans – outcomes that comport with our most important values – the best of care without regard for political affiliation, gender identity, ethnicity, color, religion, class or income
Upon his return to the senate and before he voted McCain, as in an epiphany, addressed his colleagues:
“I suspect [historians’ll] find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
John McCain’s power is that he speaks truth, not just to power but to himself.
To whom he speaks next matters.
Following added 07.28.2017 at 7:00am:
Early Friday morning [28th] the Senate voted against repealing parts of Obamacare, 49-51 with Republican Sens. Susan Collins, John McCain and Lisa Murkowski joining with the Senate’s Democrats and Independents to defeat the measure.
Together, they started to make America great again.
John McCain spoke – we all won. John McCain cast a heroic vote against repeal and will soon return to Arizona to resume his battle against cancer.
Thank him, pray for him.
Pray for us all.