In politics, not everyone loved John McCain. Not everyone will be sorry that he’s gone. But BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs spent some time covering McCain’s presidential campaign for a television network, and in recent years came to admire him like never before, because McCain spoke out like never before … about the good, the bad, and the ugly in politics, and in America. This is adapted from a piece Greg wrote about McCain a year-and-a-half ago.
It must have felt nice to have been John McCain. Not because he bore the scars of a POW. Certainly not because he endured a battle with brain cancer. And not because he brooked the barbs of his own party’s president. But it must have felt 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, back when President Trump was beginning to trample on America’s invaluable role as a global icon, Arizona’s late senior senator told an audience 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.”
In his sermon about the sorry state of U.S. policies and politics, Senator McCain never mentioned the name of the current occupant of the Oval Office. But we who read about it all knew who was on the receiving end of his oration about America. As if our tone-deaf president was even listening.
Personally, until a decade ago when I covered part of his own run for President, I’d never met John McCain. 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. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man face-to-face. He was a nice guy. One day when I was preparing to interview him, McCain asked almost as many questions about me as I asked about him. He not only was the standard bearer of his party, he was a standard bearer for humility, for bi-partisanship, for decency.
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, when despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to belittle his bearing, John McCain earned respect again. Big time. Not just because of his dramatic thumbs-down vote last year 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 a Washington Post op-ed. Once again, he sent a message to his peers; once again, the best of McCain: “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 could anyone argue with that? How could 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, 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 had become. “Sometimes,” he lamented, “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 did his part. Now it’s up to everyone else.