On This, John McCain Has Been a True Leader

John McCain's political history boasts peaks and valleys, but he has remained fairly consistent on one particular matter.
07/25/2017 09:40 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2017
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I hope Senator John McCain has many years left, and that he is able to enjoy them with his friends and loved ones. He has served our country with bravery and with distinction, and suffered a great deal for it while being held as a prisoner of war. There is no doubt that he loves America. I also hope the next person who sits in his Senate seat is a Democrat, just as I do for any seat held by a Republican.

As for McCain’s political positions on major issues over the years, I’ve disagreed with him most of the time ― including right now on Trumpcare ― although less often than some other Republicans. And yes, he brought Sarah Palin on to the national stage, something that will always be a low point in his career. Let’s not revisit those issues here, or offer a list of the damaging legislation or policies he supported. That doesn’t mean they are forgotten ― it’s simply not the purpose of this post.

I want to contrast McCain to his Republican colleagues on a particular matter, one that is even more important given the current occupant of the White House. That matter is race-baiting or “othering” one’s political opponent in a way that engenders hate and plays ― or more accurately, preys ― on racial and cultural anxiety. In my book, Obama’s America, I wrote about the events discussed below, and this post draws on that material.

On October 10, 2008, at a town hall-style McCain campaign event in Lakeville, Minnesota, a supporter held the microphone and said that he was “scared” of what would happen if Barack Obama was elected president. Just take a second to ask yourself how Donald Trump would have responded.

Here’s what McCain said: “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you ― I have to tell you ― he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared” of “as president of the United States.” The crowd ― people there because they were on McCain’s side ― strongly booed him. Rather than whip his people into a frenzy, he went against them. You can question his motives if you like, but let’s focus on the fact that what he did was the right thing for America.

Not long afterward, at the same event, a woman took the microphone and said: “I can’t trust Obama.” McCain nodded along, as that sentiment is, like it or not, within the bounds of acceptable political discourse. Then she revealed why she can’t trust Obama: “he’s an Arab.” McCain immediately shook his head no, gently took back the mic, and corrected her:

“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. He’s not [an Arab].” The senator could have done nothing, and just let the woman go on, or even encouraged her delusional thinking in some way. Her remark gave him the opportunity to further heighten fears about Obama as The Other, as foreign, even as a possible terrorist, given untrue stereotypes about Arabs. Instead, McCain defended his opponent, the person standing in the way of his greatest ambition.

It’s also important to note that he overruled Palin and his top advisers, who apparently wanted to attack Obama in the campaign’s closing weeks over the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. According to a GOP official: “There’s a slippery slope in politics on the racial divide, and Sen. McCain made it very clear early on that he did not want to get into that area.”

To be sure, McCain could have given an even better answer in Lakeville if he had defended Arabs and Arab Americans. As Colin Powell noted when asked about this exchange on Meet The Press nine days later: “The really right answer is: So what if he is [an Arab]?” McCain, unlike Powell, was running for president, and his willingness, in the heat of the moment, to go as far as he did deserves praise. This is even more evident when you compare what he did to how other Republican presidential candidates acted only a few years later.

Let’s start with Rick Santorum. An attendee at a Florida event on January 23, 2012, spouted: “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not…. He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of government?” Santorum responded that he would defeat Obama and “get him out of the government right now.” When asked about not correcting this falsehood, Santorum answered: “I don’t think the President’s a Muslim, but I don’t think it’s my obligation to go out and repeat that every time someone who feels that way says something.”

In September 2010, Newt Gingrich pondered, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Additionally, crowd members at a January 24, 2012, Gingrich rally echoed this language by chanting, “Kenya, Kenya.” If he heard, Gingrich did not respond.

Mike Huckabee, at the time sitting atop the polls (although he ultimately stayed out of the 2012 race), declared on March 2, 2011 that Obama “has a different worldview and I think it is, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” The term madrassa is often wrongly associated with the teaching of radical, anti-Western ideas and promoting terrorism. Clearly, Huckabee was using the word to paint Obama as the Other. In reality it is an Arabic word that can describe any institution of learning, whether secular or religious.

Eventual nominee Mitt Romney, on December 7, 2011, said: “I don’t think [Obama] understands America,” and the New York Times editorial board slammed him the next day. On December 15, 2011, Romney characterized President Obama as “someone who is now so desperate to get reelection that he’s doing things that are very much counter to the interest of the country and he knows it.” Additionally, Romney and top surrogates referred to Obama as “foreign” a number of times. As I wrote in 2012:

Yes, they can say they are talking about his “ideas,” but that’s a distinction without a difference. The decisions he makes as president flow from his ideas. Romney is saying that Obama’s presidency would be “foreign.” There can be no question about that.

McCain, on the other hand, has held firm in refusing to go down this road. Shortly after the Arizona shootings at an event for Rep. Gabby Giffords that killed six and wounded 13 (including Giffords), he published an op-ed article in the Washington Post. After offering praise for Obama’s response, the senator added, “I disagree with many of the president’s policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals.”

You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned Donald Trump in this parade of those who sought to “other” Obama. Trump was the birther-in-chief before he became commander-in-chief.

As a progressive Democrat, I consider John McCain a political opponent, and wouldn’t hesitate to criticize him on any issue where we disagreed. Nevertheless, he stands out on this matter by standing against a despicable trend among top Republican leaders, and for that I will always respect Sen. McCain. One can be a true leader by refusing to follow the crowd.

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