Last week, the public learned that Senator John McCain has a brain tumor, and the response has been overwhelming and, at least to me, deeply moving. Former President Obama, McCain’s one-time rival, called him “an American hero” and “one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known.”
Having lost a parent myself, I was especially touched by the tribute written by his daughter Meghan. I know exactly what Meghan means when she writes, “My love for my father is boundless…and I cannot and do not wish to be in a world without him.”
For a brief moment, the news of Senator McCain’s diagnosis breathed a sense of humanity, of basic decency, into the country’s politics.
My reaction wasn’t uncomplicated, of course; few reactions ever are. It was not lost on me, for example, that Senator McCain had voted in the past to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and has not disavowed his party’s current attempt to do so. Maybe, I thought, this news would move the senator and his colleagues to consider what such a diagnosis would mean for an uninsured person.
But mostly I was thinking of the way McCain conducted himself during the 2008 campaign, when he was defeated by Barack Obama.
It’s worth taking a look back. In the final weeks of that campaign, as the economy collapsed, it was becoming increasingly clear that Obama had the lead. McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin was crisscrossing the country to large crowds and much fanfare. She accused Senator Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” The McCain-Palin campaign had made a strategic choice to cast Obama as foreign, as Other, as threatening.
Obama “is not a man who sees America the way you or I see America,” Palin told the crowds.
“The rhetoric conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete,” Frank Rich observed, in October 2008.
And then McCain had had enough.
During a town hall event, McCain corrected supporters who said Barack Obama couldn’t be trusted.
“First of all,” McCain said, “I want to be president of the United States. But I have to tell you, he is a decent person, and a person you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.”
Later, in one of the most memorable moments of the campaign, a woman told Senator McCain that she had read a lot about Senator Obama, and knew she couldn’t trust him, because “he’s an Arab.”
McCain grabbed the microphone back.
“No ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.”
That moment, clunky and imperfect as it was—there was no reason that “Arab” and “decent man” should be considered mutually exclusive categories—was beautiful. And it revealed the deep schism between the Republican establishment, of which McCain is a representative, and the Republican base, which was becoming more frightened, more mistrustful, more inflamed. McCain could have played to some of his supporters’ worst fears, and he chose not to. The same surely cannot be said of the man who occupies the White House today.
When the 2008 election results were in, and the Obama-Biden ticket had triumphed, Senator McCain accepted the results with dignity and deep reverence for the democratic process. His concession speech that night was as eloquent a statement of patriotism as you’ll find. Rereading it today, I am particularly struck by the pride he expresses in the racial progress suggested by the election of an African-American president. I quote this passage for you at length, because it is that good:
This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.
I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.
A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.
Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day — though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her Creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.
At that critical moment in the nation’s history, this is the type of man John McCain chose to be: a sower of healing, of mutual trust and respect, of hope. And he was able to do that for this simple reason: he cares about some things more than he cares about himself. (See footnote)
The nation’s next Republican president chose a different path to the White House, and he prevailed. But there is no question as to who the better man is, nor as to whom history will remember more fondly.
But I am happy to leave that to history. For now, Senator McCain is still very much among us, and I am grateful that he is.
McCain’s experience as a POW in Vietnam has been much discussed elsewhere, but it’s important to have in mind when considering his public life and his devotion to causes larger than self. Shortly after his father was named the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, he was offered early, unconditional release from the North Vietnamese prison in which he’d been captive for nearly a year. And he refused: he stayed true to the POW code of honor and refused to leave ahead of prisoners who’d been there longer. As a result of his refusal, he was tortured again, and placed in solitary confinement for two years. As David Foster Wallace noted in his essay on McCain: “There were no techs’ cameras in that box, no aides or consultants, no paradoxes or gray areas; nothing to sell. There was just one guy and whatever in his character sustained him. This is a huge deal.”
And it is a huge deal: because we know for a fact that John McCain is capable of transcending his own self-interest, because he did, as a young man facing indescribable pain and fear. That alone is heroic.