Wissot: John McCain’s decency is what we will miss most (column)
Decency is not a term we generally associate with today’s politics. The words “cutthroat,” “slash and burn,” “scorched earth” and ruthlessness are more representative of how both politicians and their political parties are inclined to behave.
John McCain was hardly a perfect man. He regretted using his influence in the Senate to change banking rules at the behest of a big donor, Charles Keating, in what became known as the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal of the late 1980s. (“McCain: The most reprehensible of the Keating Five,” Tom Fitzpatrick, Phoenix Times, Nov. 29, 1989)
He apologized for not being truthful about his decision to not call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse while campaigning there in the 2000 presidential campaign. As he put it at the time, “I feared that if I answered honestly
I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.” (“After campaigning on candor, McCain admits he lacked it on the Confederate flag issue,” Steven A. Holmes, New York Times, April 20, 2000)
But what I will most remember about him was the courage and humility he showed at two critical moments in his losing campaign for the presidency in 2008. At a town hall meeting in York, Pennsylvania, a woman holding a microphone said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him — he’s an Arab.” McCain quickly grabbed the microphone from her and replied, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” (“Watch John McCain strongly defend Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign,” Time, Lisa Marie Segarra, July 20, 2017).
And when he gave his concession speech in Phoenix on election night 2008, he spoke about the historic significance of the moment. “A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America is today a world away from the cruel and frightful 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.” (“John McCain’s concession speech,” Politico, Nov. 5, 2008)
As I watched the tributes to him come pouring in on television when his death was announced, I couldn’t help thinking of the words that were used over the years to describe him: “maverick,” “straight talker,” “happy warrior.” He was a cynical optimist, a man who had seen through his many years of military and political service to the nation how cruel and harsh the world could be, but who never relinquished his undying faith in the goodness of the American people and the beacon of hope this country still offered to the world.
Most politicians, like most people in all fields of endeavor, are unremarkable and easily forgettable. Not John McCain. He stood out because of his willingness to reach across the aisle and work with colleagues from the opposition party. It seems almost oddly quaint to say that he did what politicians are elected to do: accomplish something while in office and reach compromises with adversaries in order to make that possible.
McCain certainly didn’t endear himself to members of the Republican Party by breaking with them over issues such as campaign finance and comprehensive immigration reform. (“John McCain was defiant as a POW and, often, in politics,” Sarah Pruitt, The History Channel, Aug. 25, 2018). But beginning with his experiences as a captive during the Vietnam War, he was a man who put duty and honor over self-interest and loyalty to country over obedience to the dictates of political party.
I recently re-read John F. Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” written while the late president was still in the Senate. It’s a book that honors eight members of that body from both the 19th and 20th centuries who deserved recognition for breaking with their party and relying on their consciences, rather than following the whims of the electorate.
I couldn’t help thinking as I read that the only viable candidate for inclusion in a 21st century sequel to Kennedy’s book would be John McCain. Nobody else in the current Congress embodies the necessary measure of courage and conviction.
It also dawned upon me that although I have never as a lifetime liberal voted for a Republican candidate for president and, therefore, didn’t vote for McCain in 2008, I would given the opportunity vote for him today. It wouldn’t be because I agreed with his conservative philosophy. I certainly didn’t. I would vote for him because I believed in the decency of the man and in the hope he would bring his decency to the office of the presidency, a quality that is sadly lacking now.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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