Perhaps nothing personifies the late Sen. John McCain better than this episode from his 2008 presidential campaign.
At a campaign rally, a woman said she did not trust Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab.”
McCain, a Republican, quickly responded. “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Ten years later, such civility and such accuracy seem uncommon. McCain, who died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81, might have been the last of his kind. If so, that would be truly unfortunate.
This is not to canonize McCain, or to immediately jump on the bandwagon for renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain, as Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and others have proposed.
McCain may well be deserving of that honor. But it’s too early to objectively assess his legacy. Indeed, that building where many U.S. senators have their offices is named after a Democratic senator from Georgia — Richard B. Russell, who served from 1933 to 1971 — whose segregationist views and strident opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be anathema to most people today.
“The history books will be kind to John McCain because our country is so much better for his straight talk, common sense, maverick ways and passionate service,” said former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who served in the Senate with McCain, though they did not always agree, and who now heads the National Association of Broadcasters.
McCain, like the rest of us, was flawed. He made mistakes. But what he did with his life was extraordinary.
A Navy aviator, his fidelity to the U.S. and his courage while a North Vietnamese prisoner of war became the stuff of legend. Elected to Congress in 1982, he was chosen by Arizonans four years later to succeed the equally legendary and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
McCain generally was conservative, but like Goldwater, he held broad views that defied simplistic labels.
He teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to successfully push campaign reform, only to have it partially undone by the courts. He ardently supported a strong U.S. military while tenaciously fighting pork-barrel spending by the Pentagon. He worked to restore U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam, the country that caused him so much pain. He was a leader on immigration reform, which Congress unwisely let fail. He took a chance on a little-known Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, choosing her as his vice presidential running mate. He voted to uphold Obamacare.
And not to avoid the obvious, in recent times he defied President Donald Trump’s shallow disdain for him.
Character, commitment and a maverick sensibility defined McCain. Let us remember his final words to Americans, released after his death.
“… We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
“We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. …”