The Ineffable Character Of John McCain

09/26/2017 08:10 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2017
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Knowing the man, it felt inevitable.

Twice, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona has thwarted his party’s efforts to pass a hasty and ill-conceived Obamacare repeal. Returning from brain cancer surgery in July, he laid down a marker: His colleagues should craft bipartisan legislation through regular order — including extensive hearings — subject to an assessment by the Congressional Budget Office of its impact on ordinary Americans. They did not listen.

And so, without pleasure, McCain will doom legislation sponsored by his closest friend, Lindsey Graham, salvaging the signature accomplishment of the man who defeated him for president, Barack Obama. Responding, Graham said: “My friendship with John McCain is not based on how he votes, but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.”

Exactly. For McCain, character counts and conviction matters. “Nothing in life,” he once wrote, “is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself.”

We first met in 1996, when I traveled with the Bob Dole presidential campaign in California. We shared considerable amusement over the seriocomic agenda crafted by then-Governor Pete Wilson: a heartwarming trip to a B-1 bomber factory, then the Mexican border — where, trailed by camera crews, Dole and Wilson kept an eye out for illegal immigrants — and, finally, a trip to death row at San Quentin during which, McCain reported, his friend Dole had chatted up the residents. I discovered the quintessential McCain — quick to see the comedy in politics and put its travails in perspective.

That perspective had come at great cost. Shot down over Vietnam, he endured five-plus years of excruciating torture in a POW camp. Because McCain was the son of an admiral, the North Vietnamese offered him early release for propaganda purposes. McCain refused; the torture continued.

We spoke of this only once. After the 2000 presidential campaign, we were chatting about why Al Gore had changed persona during each debate. Gore, McCain theorized, had never escaped the shadow of his father, a senator.

On his wall were photographs of McCain’s father and grandfather, both admirals. I observed that he, as well, had strong exemplars to define him. After a moment’s quiet, he said softly, “Prison camp saved me.” At once I understood: However terrible the consequences, his stubborn resistance had introduced McCain to his essential self.

Particularly remarkable is his ability to forgive. During McCain’s captivity, an anti-war activist, David Ifshin, traveled to Hanoi and denounced the war. His speech was broadcast in McCain’s cell — a “grievous wrong,” McCain felt. Years later, Ifshin approached him to apologize, and they worked together in promoting human rights. “His friendship honored me,” McCain said after Ifshin’s early death. “His country was a better place for his service to her, and I became a better man for my friendship with him.”

He became a leading advocate of normalized relations with Vietnam — giving cover to Bill Clinton. Later, I witnessed a warm meeting between McCain and the foreign minister of Vietnam, who had come to him for advice. It would be wrong, McCain felt, to let his personal resentments prolong the wounds of war.

He reserves his highest standards for himself — and judges his failures accordingly. After a brush with political opprobrium as part of the corruption scandal called the Keating Five, he became a relentless champion of campaign-finance reform.

During the 2000 South Carolina primary, while enduring despicable lies directed at him and his family, he faced the visceral controversy over the Confederate flag. Fearing defeat, he robotically read a statement calling it a “symbol of heritage.” Anyone who knew him saw his misery.

It was, he told me later, perhaps his biggest mistake. So he returned to South Carolina to apologize. “I chose to compromise my principles,” he admitted. “I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”

In McCain, such lapses are rare. Not so placing decency over partisanship.

His last shot at becoming president was in 2008. His opponent, Barack Obama, was a young political phenomenon of whom McCain did not seem overfond. But at a rally, racism against Obama boiled over. When a woman denounced Obama as an Arab, McCain seized the microphone to defend Obama as a loyal American — “a decent family man, a citizen who I just happen to have serious differences with.”

When then-GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann slandered Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, during the 2012 presidential campaign, for fictitious “ties” to the Muslim Brotherhood, McCain rebuked Bachmann on the Senate floor, replying that Abedin “represents what is best about America: the daughter of immigrants, who has risen... on the basis of her substantial personal merit and her abiding commitment to the American ideals she embodies.”

Nothing captures this capaciousness of spirit better than McCain’s relationship with his ideological opposite Ted Kennedy. Kennedy, he once groused to me, was “a bully.” But they were doomed to become friends: “Ted and I,” he acknowledged in eulogizing Kennedy, “shared the sentiment that a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed.” Then he said of Kennedy what many say of him: “You never had even a small doubt that once his word was given... he would honor the letter and spirit of that agreement.” Kennedy, McCain concluded, “took the long view. He never gave up. And... he taught me to be a better senator.”

Returning to the Senate in the summer, McCain admonished: “This country — this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good, and magnificent country — needs us to help it thrive.” That describes America at its best — and the good man who personifies it.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.

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