Remembering John McCain
BridgeND | Wednesday, September 5, 2018
I felt a surprising sense of loss when I heard that John McCain had died. Of course, I was saddened by the passing of a great American, but it went deeper than that, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Coming from a very blue state, I saw the 2008 campaign as a constant stream of ridicule that followed Sarah Palin in whatever she did, but I can’t say my 11-year-old self was particularly fond of McCain either. Another old white man who wanted to fix the great recession with tax cuts to the wealthy.
It’s easy for those on the left to look back on the past few months and find reasons to laud McCain. His saving of the Affordable Care Act and his forceful opposition to the president both create a caricature of the “good Republican” who finally saw the light. A handful of speeches against the current administration that could have come just as easily from a Democrat, and suddenly we forget the deep disagreements that would have been evident in any other time.
Now that the senator has passed, it will be even easier to shift the memory of him into something that he never was. We must not. To do so would not only disrespect a principled public servant but it would obscure what was truly remarkable about the senator.
It was never the specific voting decisions of McCain that were impressive, but rather who he was and how he brought that into American politics. In the words of Joe Biden, a close friend of his,
“He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you, if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
That such words are remarkable is perhaps distressing, but this view is one any functioning democracy needs. That basic assumption that someone may disagree and yet still be a decent human being, devoted to the same country as you, is essential for any country that wishes to be more than a collection of rival factions.
It was this sentiment that the senator demonstrated repeatedly. One example was his polite but emphatic rejection of an attack on then-senator Obama’s origins. “He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” In the middle of a highly contested campaign, he was willing to speak up in favor of an opponent against fear and ignorance. He believed deeply that he could do more good than his opponent as president of the United States, but how that happened mattered.
He also believed deeply in the nation of ideas that we live in. A country that is unique to its core and worth defending for that very reason. A country whose failures may be great, perhaps made even greater when contrasted with its lofty ideals, but is still humanity’s last best hope. He spent a lifetime serving as a small part of that larger story.
Ultimately, I will feel this loss, as will most of the nation — most of all as that of a symbol. People like John McCain reminded us that politics could and should call us to something higher than the set of ideas we might happen to espouse. While we may disagree strongly, we must extend some basic courtesy to those with whom we disagree. We felt this loss so deeply because it feels like those very ideas are slipping. The truth is the decency, the respect, the nobility that John McCain represented have been fading for a long time, his death merely adds a sense of finality.
Griffin Cannon is a senior studying Political Science from Burlington, Vermont. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the individual and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.