Senator John McCain passed away last week at age 81. He led a life and career characterized by honesty, courage, willingness to speak the truth and buck authority which earned him the nickname “the Maverick”, as well as a willingness to reach across the aisle and compromise with his political adversaries. Tellingly the outpour of grief came from all over the political spectrum, bar the extremes on both sides, including his party. John McCain’s type of politician is needed now more than ever in this age of polarization, and this is why he is a model to be followed for all politicians, if democracy is to survive. Above all it is his life that speaks for him, shaped as it was by key events that made him the politician he was, as in the words of former President Obama “few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did”.
John McCain was born into a family of Navy officers, and thus not surprisingly joined the Navy himself. While serving in Vietnam he was shot down from his plane and captured. As the son of a Navy admiral, the Vietnamese offered to release him from captivity as a gesture of goodwill, but McCain refused freedom if other POW’s were not released as well. He subsequently spent five years in captivity, beaten and tortured to the point that he was unable to raise his arms above his head for the rest of his life. About twenty years later however, when he was already a senator, he was the driving force behind the normalization of US relations with Vietnam, joined by another Vietnam veteran, Democrat John Kerry. The whole Vietnam saga displays McCain’s qualities at his best: sacrificing himself for others, the ability to put the past behind, and to work together with politicians from the other party.
In 1982 he was elected to Congress as a representative of Arizona, and quickly showed that he intended to think and decide for himself, when he bucked Reagan and the Republicans a few times. In 1986 he was elected to the Senate, replacing another legendary Republican figure from Arizona, Senator Barry Goldwater. Soon after he was embroiled in a scandal concerning campaign finance, with four other Senators. The Ethics Committee however found no wrongdoing, apart from concluding that McCain had showed poor judgment. But in his typical pattern of service, McCain drew the right conclusions and dealt with the issue straight-on. Together with Democrat Senator Feingold he later prepared and passed legislation to reform campaign finance. Another example of his ability to put the past behind and work across the aisle for what he thought right.
Later in his career McCain ran twice for the office of President. In 2000 he ran in the Republican primaries, but was eventually defeated for the nomination by President Bush. Eight years later McCain finally got the nomination, but in a bad year for the Republican Party he was defeated by President Obama. An episode during the campaign again highlights McCain’s view of public service and sense for civility. Faced with a supporter who claimed that she was afraid of Obama since he was a bad man and not even American, McCain responded: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about”. Even in the heat of a presidential race and campaign, McCain kept his civility in the public discourse, something that we should expect and demand of every single politician.
In contrast to his relations with Bush and Obama, McCain had a far more hostile relationship with President Trump, of course through no fault of McCain. During his own presidential campaign Trump claimed that McCain was no war hero, since he had been captured. McCain notably refrained from ever replying, but of course with his style of bucking authority he was an incessant thorn in the eye of Trump in the Senate. McCain constantly rebuked him for his foreign policy and especially his relations with Russia. On a memorable day, McCain was the decisive vote that saved Obamacare by voting against his party. Last year he also gave a memorable speech that best outlined his view of how politics should be conducted, simply stating that: “Merely preventing your political opponent from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work”.
McCain found a way to make a statement of reconciliation and at the same time snubbing authority even in his death. It is understood that he did not wish Trump to be present at all during his memorial service, and that he had asked former Presidents Bush and Obama to give speeches. This is more than fitting and symbolical for the way McCain lived his life. Two former Presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, and exactly the two men who defeated McCain for the presidency. A powerful message that McCain held no grudges, saw past party lines and valued civility in public service, especially from the men who ultimately stood in his way to the highest office in the US.
The sad thing about the world today is that McCain increasingly seems as a politician from another age. Politics has become increasingly polarized and everywhere it seems harder and harder to find common ground to achieve something higher. And that’s precisely why McCain needs to be a model politician to be emulated, now and in the future. His life is full of lessons of how a public servant should be and act.
Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik