In our adult lives as baby boomers, we have watched, often powerlessly, as American politics have taken a divisive fork in the road, with society sometimes following. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has covered that over the years as a journalist, and writes today of one man who is trying harder than ever now to reverse that course.
It must be nice to be John McCain. Not because he’s battling brain cancer. Not because he bears the scars of a POW. And not because he brooks the barbs of his own party’s president. But it must be nice to feel liberated. To break from political patterns and say what you think must be said, damn the president and damn the consequences.
That would explain why Arizona’s senior senator recently told an audience at a ceremony honoring him in Philadelphia, “We live in a land made of ideals … We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.”
Senator McCain, like former president George W. Bush just a few days later, never mentioned the name of the president in his sermon about the sorry state of U.S. policies and politics, but we all know who was on the receiving end of his oration about America. As if the man was even listening.
Personally, I never met McCain before I covered part of his run for President. I’d known only three things about him. He was a genuine American war hero, he was a solid conservative, and he had a sturdy streak of independence.
Then came the campaign in 2008. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man face-to-face. He was a nice guy. One day when I was set up to interview him, McCain asked almost as many questions about me as I asked about him.
He won the nomination but lost the election. And the nice guy turned bitter. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, if Obama said yes, McCain said no. If Obama said day, McCain said night.
I didn’t lose my respect for the senator’s painful and courageous military service, but I lost my respect for his long-daunted streak of independence. He seemed driven only by one thing: revenge against his triumphant antagonist.
That was then. This is now. John McCain has earned respect again. Big time. Not just because of his dramatic thumbs-down vote in late July on the repeal of Obamacare, when he bolted from his party’s line and complied with his conscience. But because of what he said on the Senate floor shortly before that vote, lamenting the intensifying state of stalemate in Washington: “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.” After 30 years in the Senate, it was John McCain at his finest, because it held messages for all of us, although none more than McCain’s colleagues, on both sides of the aisle.
Then Arizona’s senior senator elaborated in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Once again, it was the best of McCain. Once again, he sent a message to his peers: “We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern… We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.”
Watching the inertia in Washington for many years now and sometimes covering it, I can only wonder, how can anyone argue with that? How can anyone believe that conflict over political principles is more productive than consensus on our country’s core concerns? The experience of his years, and perhaps the reality of his cancer, have made McCain wiser. “Both sides have let this happen,” McCain told his beloved Senate. “Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline.”
And then he showed how big a man he truly has become. “Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason… Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
It is a long time since the American Congress has been overburdened with benevolent rhetoric and humble thinking and noble men.
It is high time to turn that around. John McCain has done his part. Now it’s up to everyone else.