Days after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, the old Navy fighter pilot did what he does: He showed up to vote with his party, twice, on health care legislation he didn’t even favor in the shape it was in. Though it sometimes goes unnoticed by partisans on both sides of the aisle, John Sidney McCain III is a loyal Republican.
Then, in the end, he cast the deciding vote to kill a bill that would have both increased premiums and left millions without coverage. Though it often goes unnoticed on the left, the senator is also a loyal American.
On so many issues, I happen to disagree with McCain. Yet before, during and after his controversial health care votes, he has seemed to me to be a person of conscience. (And yes, Donald Trump, the man was a war hero long before he decided to march alongside you to open debate on an appalling bill.)
He has been a rare civil voice in the jungle, once drawing boos from a crowd of his own supporters after setting straight a woman who said she didn’t trust Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab.” McCain didn’t dither: “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 this campaign’s all about.” It would be great if correcting lies about a rival were standard behavior, but that’s not the case.
He has been the rare grown-up in the preschool, too. (No offense, kids.) He doesn’t run away from difficult questions, doesn’t take tough coverage or disagreements personally and fights hard for his core issues. While all pols pander sometimes, he is admirably terrible at it.
He says things that are true even when they’re not expedient, and while everyone on the national stage has a healthy ego, he gets such great mileage out of his self-deprecating wit that others might consider his example. His commitment to human rights and his deep understanding that torture isn’t only a betrayal of our values, but one that yields nothing useful, are also in far-too-short supply.
Yes, he picked Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate; even heroes make mistakes. But he has also taken on his party when it wasn’t easy — running on campaign finance reform and against unaffordable tax cuts, for instance, in his 2000 presidential campaign. And he continues to criticize the current Republican president, even since his diagnosis tweeting about the most recent suicide bombing in Kabul, which killed 24 and left dozens more wounded: “Disgraceful we still have no strategy for #Afghanistan.” Of the Polish strongman President Trump so admires, he tweeted “U.S. & #Poland must honor commitment to democracy & rule of law.”
Many of his part-time admirers on the left like him only on the days he agrees with them. And I do understand why they wanted his head, scars and all, after his perplexing votes enabling legislation that he himself called “a shell.” But he deserves my respect even on the days when what his internal hall monitor whispers to him isn’t the same thing mine tells me.
It isn’t just a historical, biographical fact that after he was shot down over North Vietnam, he stood up to years of torture and refused to be released ahead of his fellow POWs just because his daddy was a big-deal admiral. Throughout his public life, he has adhered to a code that some of his colleagues can’t even seem to crack, much less live by.
And beyond his important decision to join GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine in circumventing complete health care mayhem, the overarching legacy of the man his daughter Meghan McCain has called “a warrior at dusk” will be that to a degree that sets him apart, he has steered by his own stars, and even when those took him off course, he owned that, too.
In a Tuesday floor speech that was 100-proof McCain, he admonished Rs and Ds to start working together again to reach compromises that, while imperfect, contribute to the common good. Just like him.
This column first appeared in USA Today.