In this day and age, it’s incredibly rare for any one news story to hold significant weight for more than a few days. The titles of our headlines are about as volatile as their implications. We move from news on payments to a porn star, to Russian interference in our politics, to constant sexual harassment scandals, to NFL anthem protests, to upcoming midterm elections. It’s quite fitting that, in this never-ending political tornado that is modern day America, John S. McCain III, the eternal American maverick, seems to be the only person capable of raising our attention spans slightly above goldfish levels.
McCain’s death has been a central story for some weeks now, and for good reason. Many citizens have lost faith in, and hope for, our institutions. Worse, our leaders seem to be following suit, trading the interests of their country for their own political hopes. Washington is constantly mired in gridlock with little prospects for the future. Our politics have lost any semblance of personal integrity or honor, trading substantive policy debate for vicious personal attacks, while our nation has seemingly lost a sense of its core values and its sense of what makes America worth fighting for. This was not the America that John McCain represented or fought for. No matter his politics, it is evident that John McCain deeply cared for his country and embodied some of its best values. If we’re going to summon up the political and moral courage to unite America, we could learn a lesson or two from John McCain.
It’s practically a cliché to point out how gridlocked Washington is in this day and age. Politicians stand bold with proud rhetoric, while failing to work together to get anything done for the country. Partisan politics are American politics. John McCain believed in a different Washington, one where bipartisan work wasn’t heroic, it was expected. He followed through on this belief, rising above petty partisanship time and time again. McCain actively stood up to the radical elements of his own party when he saw them taking power, he supported sensible legislation, even when it came from that dreaded opposition party, and most of all, he left his mark as an independent maverick who would shake things up in Washington more than once.
In the early 2000’s, many far right religious leaders threatened a stranglehold on the Republican Party. McCain identified this as a threat to his party and country and chose to stand up to these leaders, even when he knew it could only damage his political image. During the 2000 Republican primary, Senator McCain delivered a bold speech striking at the heart of this seemingly all powerful interest group. McCain proclaimed that, “Neither party should be pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Jefferson or Jerry Falwell on the right.” These men were no political punching bags, they were juggernauts, and McCain’s principled stance didn’t turn out well politically. McCain lost to George W. Bush, but that doesn’t mean his stance should be forgotten. The religious right’s influence has certainly waned in the nearly two decades since McCain’s stand, so it may be easy to dismiss this as an unrelatable piece of political history. In reality, McCain’s stance then is just as need today, just against different interest groups. Both parties seem to be dominated by the radical elements of their bases, and our country is left with a vast swath of political moderates who end up losing every single election season. That’s because we don’t have a John McCain to stand up to political bullies when it counts.
McCain was just as independent as a legislator. He achieved critical campaign finance reform in the era of big money with McCain Feingold, a historic bipartisan bill. He stood up for environmental protection when much of his party denied climate change, and he most famously casted a shocking, last minute “No” vote on the GOP’s repeal and replacement bill of Obamacare. Irregardless of whether you agree or disagree with any of these particular policy stances, they are mere examples of the larger truth that John McCain was an independent political maverick who valued what he saw as good policy for the country above party orthodoxy. While that may seem like a low bar, it’s one he passed often on his own. Everyone talks a big game on, “reaching across the aisle” and putting country over party, but John McCain actually did it, over and over again. “We’re getting nothing done my friends, we’re getting nothing done!” McCain proclaimed those words in his powerful speech upon returning to the senate following an operation. Those words embodied the cries of millions of Americans stuck in the middle of pointless political shouting matches, and they couldn’t have been put better by anyone else.
When our country began to enter into the age of vicious personal attacks that exist now, McCain made a last stand for honor in American politics. When confronted, head on, with the nasty, dark corners of his own Republican party, he stood against them. He looked to shine the light in those corners, not exploit the darkness. Hyperbolic personal smears are commonplace in campaigns in this day and age, but they didn’t come natural to McCain, and he recognized the tactic for the dishonorable ploy that it always is. In the infamously heated South Carolina Republican primary in the 2000 election, John McCain faced a smear campaign against his character unlike any other up to that point. Just days before their candidate spoke at a high school with a ban on interracial dating, the Bush campaign circulated rumors throughout the state that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black daughter. The less than subtle dog whistle was in reference to McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Following that, Cindy McCain, the Senator’s wife, was smeared as a drug addict. McCain’s mental health and war record were attacked as well. Throughout all of it, McCain was stoic. He didn’t hit back with the same sorts of character attacks at Bush. He lost the primary by 11 points to George Bush, ending his campaign shortly thereafter. He lost honorably, and that matters. This certainly wasn’t the first time these sorts of smear tactics had been used in American politics, but I think it was the last time they were outright rejected by a candidate with integrity.
The moment that McCain is most well-known for is a relatively recent one. He did something unthinkable in our modern politics, he defended his opponent’s honor. Late in the 2008 presidential campaign, when it was quite clear that the Republican Party was heading for an electoral beat-down, McCain was presented with a last ditch effort to exploit the dark conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama. “I can’t trust Obama… he’s an Arab,” claimed an attendee to a John McCain rally. Many in the room undoubtedly agreed with the sentiment that Obama was a particularly dangerous and scary threat to the United States, partially because he looked different than past presidents. Such sentiments were reflected in the polls and opinions voiced by popular talk radio hosts of the time. This is not to say that all criticisms of Obama were related to race, or were unfounded, by any means. Yet, there was an undertone of racial, if not cultural fear and disdain for Obama. “No ma’am, no ma’am” replied McCain. He went on to explain that the differences between him and his opponent had to do with policy, not personality or motive. McCain was lauded for this moment during the campaign, but his defense of Obama resonates even stronger today. Instead of exploiting those unfound fears, he did what no political consultant would ever recommend. He told members of his base that they were wrong. He actively hurt his own political standing because he believed that honor mattered more than winning. That philosophy is long gone today and it wasn’t all that prevalent at the time. Those same shameful rumors surrounding Obama were exploited by a certain New York businessman during that election and there’s no more powerful contrast to McCain’s integrity than that very man’s rise to power.
Perhaps most disheartening in the downward trend of American politics during McCain’s era is the vast expansion of cynicism amongst our countrymen and women. Americans don’t trust each other, especially when they’re from the opposing party. Everything seems political, and the biggest fights of the day are often centered on useless, petty partisan political gamesmanship. Our country seems to be simply trudging along day by day, and we seem to have lost a belief in the American values that are supposed to be greater than any one individual. That belief found no brighter home than in John McCain’s soul. He believed so strongly in the American principles of courage, union, and perseverance that he was willing to die for them, and nearly did. Everyone has heard the story, but few could have lived it.
On October 26, 1967, John McCain’s fighter plane was shot down over a lake in North Vietnam. McCain miraculously escaped the crash, rising above the lake’s surface, only to be captured by Viet Cong troops. The already badly injured McCain suffered many beatings at the hands of his captors. After four straight days of torture, he conceded to write a supposed confession of guilt of committing war crimes as part of America’s larger campaign in the region. Ashamed of his concession, McCain attempted to kill himself. When he was stopped, and beaten, by a guard, he seemed to find a new fire burning inside of him to keep him going for the rest of the hellish ordeal. That fire? A cause greater than himself in preserving the honor of his country, family, and especially his fellow POW’s. When the Vietnamese offered McCain an early release for his special status as the son of an important US general, McCain refused. He refused because he believed that he was just one piece of a greater cause, and that he didn’t deserve special treatment over his friends in captivity. He suffered for five years in Vietnam and never backed down nor gave up that belief. This wasn’t political, it was honorable; it was heroic.
I think that is what America has lost the most with John McCain, a hero. Along with the example he set for all of us, we have lost sense of what really matters, what really makes a hero. It’s not beating your opponent, or winning an election, or passing a bill in congress. It’s making tremendous sacrifice and service, simply because you believe in what America has to offer. McCain’s death ought to serve as a wake-up call to all of us; a reminder that heroism isn’t inevitable. It’s up to us to protect and renew the legacy of American values.
Photo Credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons