John McCain was a politician in the way that I viewed politicians when I first became old enough to vote, which was in 1972 when I — a newly-minted 19-year-old college liberal firebrand — cast my votes proudly for George McGovern and Edward Brooke.
I knew the difference between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. I just didn’t care. I voted for the person I liked better, and about all I knew was that I didn’t like Richard Nixon, ever. Not in 1960. Not in 1962. Not in 1968. And not when I finally had a chance to vote against him. I couldn’t wait to go down to the Callahan School and put a great, big X next to McGovern’s name.
McCain was kind of a throwback to that era. The landscape was dotted with Republicans and Democrats who — like today — argued about everything. But the difference between now and then is enormous. Despite their differences, the parties could close ranks and pass meaningful legislation. This could be because more of them, back in the ’60s and ’70s, had military backgrounds and, thus, a better understanding of how and why the mission comes before anything else. But whatever the reasons, congressmen from that era forced Nixon to resign from the presidency before his certain impeachment because of Watergate; and Washington got a Civil Rights bill passed despite fierce opposition. Senators seemed to understand that it was OK to compromise, and OK to strike deals.
In McCain, we had a man of uncommon courage. He was a hero for withstanding the torture of the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War, and he no doubt had the cachet among his colleagues — even early in his tenure in the House and Senate — to stake out positions that were often at odds with the Republican leadership. This tendency earned him the reputation of being a “maverick.”
I’m not going to lie. I agreed with very little of McCain’s agenda. Whether he was a maverick is certainly fodder for debate, but he didn’t seem like much of one to me. An overwhelming number of times, if I was on one side of an issue, he was on the other. There were exceptions. He seemed to understand much better than his fellow Grand Old Partiers the inherent corrosiveness of too much money in politics, and thanks to him, the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill was passed. Of course, one could argue — and did — that this came after he got caught up in the Keating Five scandal.
But by and large, he was a conservative and I was not. He was definitely a hawk on foreign policy and I can recall several times reading stories about him advocating the use of force, much to my chagrin. I did not support him for president in 2008. I do not agree, however, that his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate cost him the election. The stock market crash and resulting economic panic did that.
Now you’d think after reading all this that I wasn’t a fan of John McCain. But I was. I admired him. I admired the fact that he told a woman during that 2008 campaign who started ranting that Barack Obama was a Muslim that the Democratic nominee was a decent family man whose opinions differed from his on many fundamental issues. But that was all.
I admired McCain for going squarely against his own party, and its neo-con perspective on war (especially since few of them ever fought in one), by coming out strongly against torture.
I admired McCain for standing up to Donald Trump and ruining his plan to gut the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as Obamacare).
Now, if you’re cynical, you can say “well he knew he was dying; what did he care?” I’d answer by saying that most people in that situation would just want to be allowed to live out their days without being in the middle of a maelstrom. McCain had a different, and in my opinion more noble, idea of what his mission was.
When Ronald Reagan was president, he found that — almost impossibly — he felt a kinship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Oh, they fought, and groused about each other on legislative matters, but they had an expression, and it was “it’s 5 o’clock, Mr. President.” They knew at the end of the day that they were still Americans, and despite their philosophical differences, each wanted the same thing: peace and prosperity.
McCain was the same way. He could kick up a fuss with Ted Kennedy during the afternoon, and go out to dinner with him at night.
We’ve lost that in the rancor of today’s uber-party politics, and John McCain’s death, I’m afraid, brings us further away from those days when our leaders understood their responsibilities to us.
McCain was a great man, a great leader, and a great American. And this country will miss him dearly.