During a 2008 presidential campaign town hall held for John McCain, a woman in the audience looked the senior senator from Arizona in the eye and said, ‘I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, — he’s an Arab.”
McCain respectfully took the microphone away from her, shook his head and responded, “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.”
“If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President,” McCain added, “I wouldn’t be running and that’s the point. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are, because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
That’s just one of many moments that demonstrate the character and commitment of a man who served his country in combat and went on to serve 30 years in the Senate. Despite the sword of cancer hanging over him, John McCain still has something to say – a message for all of us.
At 81, McCain was no choir boy, but think about this: how many current politicians are willing to admit their own lapses, much less do it in front of the full assembly of the Senate.
On July 25, 2017, standing in the well of the Senate for perhaps the last time, McCain urged his colleagues to rise above current divisions. “…they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now, they aren’t producing much for the American people.
“Both sides have let this happen. … We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly, I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
All of us have feet of clay. By admitting his own, McCain reminds us that humility is not a weakness but our saving grace.
“I hope we can again rely on humility,” McCain said, “on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. …
“What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.
“The Senate is capable of that. We know that. We’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it happen many times. And the times when I was involved even in a modest way with working out a bipartisan response to a national problem or threat are the proudest moments of my career and by far the most satisfying.
“The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America,” McCain emphasized. “That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”
Having character does not mean that all our actions are proper or noble. It means having the moral courage to admit when we’ve made mistakes and committing oneself to change in the future.
In his new book, The Restless Wave,” McCain leaves us with a message of hope and inspiration, as this excerpt demonstrates.
“My fellow Americans, no association ever mattered more to me. We’re not always right. We’re impetuous and impatient and rush into things without knowing what we’re really doing. We argue over little differences endlessly and exaggerate them into lasting breaches. We can be selfish and quick sometimes to shift the blame for our mistakes to others, but our country ’tis of thee.
“What great good we’ve done in the world, so much more good than harm. We served ourselves, of course, but we help make others free safe and prosperous because we weren’t threatened by other people’s liberty and success. We need each other. We need friends in the world and they need us. The bell tolls for us, my friends. Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that. We have not been an island, we were involved in mankind.
“Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different.
“We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.
“Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect, and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all.
“Those rights inhabit the human heart, and from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.”
I hope those in Congress reflect on Senator McCain’s words. I hope they choose to display more respect, reconciliation and responsibility. If they do; if those representatives elected to serve us all can return to a path of true leadership, that would be John McCain’s greatest legacy.