Sen. John McCain is a patriot. Now, as he battles against a brutal affliction, he has earned recognition as a man of honor. He has served his country, often at great sacrifice. And even now, he is using his stature to warn this country against a wayward course.
Contrary to Donald Trump, McCain is a true American hero. Shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, he was seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was tortured after he refused an offer to be repatriated ahead of other captives who had been held longer. Instead, he stayed with his fellow prisoners for five long, painful years. After he retired from the Navy, McCain was elected first to the U.S. House of Representatives and then to the Senate in 1987.
As a senator, he was a conservative who sought to get things done. He joined with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to sponsor campaign finance reform. He pushed for a reopening diplomatic relations with Vietnam. He worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy, another Democrat, on comprehensive immigration reform. He gained a reputation as a maverick.
When he won the Republican nomination for president in 2008, he ran a brass-knuckled campaign, even naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. Yet he refused to traffic in hate and lies. He famously defended Barack Obama at one of his rallies when a supporter said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not … he’s an Arab.”
“No ma’am, McCain said, “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just have to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Later, after supporters voiced their surprise, he would not pander, saying: “He is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared (of) as president. … I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
In recent years, McCain has grown more conservative as the Republican Party has lurched to the right. Yet he has continued to show his independence.
When Donald Trump scorned McCain during the presidential primaries as not being a hero because he had been shot down, McCain did not take the bait. But he also did not sign up for the choir. When Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape came out, McCain withdrew his endorsement, even though he was in the midst of a tough race for re-election. He stated the simple truth that Trump’s “demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults” rendered it “impossible to offer even conditional support,” and vowed to write in a “good conservative Republican” when he voted.
McCain was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. Since then, he has repeatedly raised his voice to warn Americans against extremism. He voted against the Republican bill to repeal health care reform. As a man of the Senate, he was particularly agitated at the irregular procedures used to try to rush through what would have been a massive change impacting millions. He called for the Senate to return to “regular order.” He voted against the attempt to transform health care with only Republican votes for a bill that most senators had no time to read, with no hearings and no time for a full Congressional Budget Office estimate.
Accepting the 2017 Liberty Medal this month, McCain called for Americans to stay true to the “ideals we have advanced around the globe,” and denounced as unpatriotic “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” He did not name Donald Trump and his political assassin Steve Bannon, but he did not need to.
McCain is not a saint. He knows how to throw a punch. This week, commenting on the Vietnam War, he made a fundamental point while putting the shiv in Donald Trump. “One aspect of the conflict … that I will never, ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur,” he said. Trump, of course, took five deferments to avoid service in the war, the last of which was for a bone spur.
A staunch conservative, McCain stands against much that I believe is vital to this country. He opposed health care reform and joined in the Senate obstruction of all things Obama. He supports the endless wars without victory in the Middle East, and voted for the invasion of Iraq, surely the worst debacle since Vietnam. He supports tax cuts for the rich and cutting services for the vulnerable. He opposes Medicare for All, tuition-free college, expanding Social Security, lifting the minimum wage and more.
He is a patriot, not a progressive. His stance, however wrong-headed, is held without venom. We can agree to disagree. These disagreements on policy and on principle, however, do not erase the reality that John McCain is a man of the Republic, serving it with honor in the winter of his years. He deserves our gratitude and our respect.