When Sen. John McCain walked into a room, he commanded attention not by well-honed public speaking but through the force of his personality.
McCain, a lion of the U.S. Senate and an American hero, died on Saturday at age 81. The former Vietnam prisoner of war turned politician never shrank from a fight, but he also never hesitated to reach across the aisle. Our national politics are impoverished by his death.
The Arizona Republican died nine years to the day after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose life was also ended by brain cancer. The two men’s political leanings were very different, but they became good friends in the Senate. Patrick Kennedy, son of the late senator, said on Monday that McCain “really loved the fight, but he never let that get in the way of respect.”
Deep mutual respect between a Republican and Democrat seems antiquated in these partisan times. That’s a shame.
McCain was a model of the civility and respect for opposing views that makes democracy work. In 2000, George W. Bush defeated McCain for the Republican nomination for president. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated McCain in the general election for the presidency. At McCain’s request, Bush and Obama will deliver eulogies at McCain’s funeral.
McCain’s military service was a throwback to presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, men who distinguished themselves on the battlefield before entering politics.
His perseverance through his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was legendary. After his plane was shot down, the naval officer was held in the notorious prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. In his first year there, after weeks of being tortured, having limbs broken and his weight down to 100 pounds, McCain was offered his release by the North Vietnamese. They had found out his father was a prominent admiral. McCain refused. There were other POWs there who had been held longer than he. It would be four more long years until he was freed.
McCain’s shoot-from-the-hip style didn’t always serve him well. Choosing former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 defied conventional wisdom and may have hurt his campaign.
Failing to gain the White House did nothing to diminish McCain’s public stature. In the Senate he honed his reputation as a maverick. He voted against tax cuts promoted by President George W. Bush and later opposed President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill. He voted against the creation of Obamacare but in July 2017 cast the decisive vote against a Republican plan to repeal the law. McCain was one of the few Republican lawmakers to publicly clash with President Trump, and pointedly left the president off the list of people invited to his funeral.
During the final stretch of the hard-fought 2008 presidential campaign, a questioner at a McCain town hall meeting described Obama as “an Arab.” McCain interrupted.
“No ma’am,” he said. “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’s all about.”
John McCain was a decent man. We will miss him.