The passing of John McCain ends an era in the Senate. McCain called upon all of us, but especially his political colleagues, to never forget the grandeur and gifts of America and the importance of setting aside our difference to serve the “most wondrous land on earth.”
McCain, who was held prisoner in Vietnam for more than five years, served America for six decades, as a naval officer, a U.S. representative and senator, and a citizen.
“What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed,” McCain said in an October 2017 speech at the National Constitution Center, which some consider his farewell address after he had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
At a time when politics seems to be all about rancor and anger, McCain stood out for his willingness to work with people with whom he had disagreed, for his ability to evolve as he learned new information, his self-deprecating humor, and, perhaps most important, for standing up for truth over political expedience.
It is a sad rebuke of today’s Congress that McCain stands out for these traits and actions.
McCain will long be remembered for a 2008 exchange with a woman at a rally in Minnesota when he was running for president against Barack Obama, who went on to win the White House.
“I can’t trust Obama. I’ve read about him … and he’s an Arab,” the woman tells McCain.
“He is not. No ma’am,” McCain replied, shaking his head and taking the microphone from her. “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
This wasn’t a heroic move, but it showed a decency and respect for fact that is horribly missing from today’s politics of besmirching “enemies” at all cost.
Although he was typically a reliable Republican vote, McCain worked closely with Democrats and colleagues who had views very different from his. McCain came from a line of naval office but refused to use his father’s status as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam to secure his release from the “Hanoi Hilton.” John Kerry, also a naval officer, returned from Vietnam to testify against the war before the Senate Armed Services Committee and tossed his medals away during a protest in Washington. McCain said his Vietnamese captors taunted American POWs with descriptions of the protest.
Despite their differences, McCain worked with Kerry, a democratic senator from Massachusetts — and then-President Bill Clinton, who was accused of dodging the draft to avoid the war — to re-establish relations with Vietnam and to gain information about prisoners of war and those missing in action.
McCain was also willing to change his mind, a rarity in the Capitol. He, for example, was a staunch supporter of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which Sen. Susan Collins worked to end.
Later, McCain blocked anti-LGBTQ language in the National Defense Authorization Act, spoke out against the Trump administration’s efforts to ban transgender troops and voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would bar employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although he wasn’t consistent, McCain was often an important voice, and vote, on environmental issues. Last year, he, along with Collins and Lindsey Graham, blocked a rollback of methane pollution rules. He also backed landmark climate change legislation and supported stricter rules for mercury pollution.
“John did what he believed was right regardless of the political consequences to him personally,” Collins, a long-time friend, said in a statement. “He would listen to good ideas whether they come from the Democratic or the Republican side of the aisle. While he was always open to new evidence and capable of changing his mind, he was unshakable when he was convinced of the appropriateness of a course of action.”
It is a standard all politicians should meet.
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