Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sadly passed away last week after a yearlong battle with brain cancer, marking the end of the illustrious life of one of the country’s most respected legislators. McCain’s death evoked widespread tribute that transcended partisan and ideological lines. Among the many who mourned McCain’s passing were several of his former rivals and opponents, including Joe Biden, George Bush and Barack Obama, the latter two of which delivered eulogies at his funeral. Though my political views and McCain’s diverged frequently, I too admire him and will miss the dignity, civility and integrity which came to define his career.
McCain brought ambition and fire to Washington, D.C., but he also brought character. Some of McCain’s most extraordinary moments came in the many instances in which he bucked party or popular opinion in his pursuit of decency, no matter the political cost. At a campaign rally during the 2008 presidential race, he famously rebuffed a woman who called then-Senator Barack Obama an “Arab” and another supporter who said he was “scared” of Obama’s supposed ulterior motives. A decade later, we can appreciate McCain’s decision to quell these baseless sentiments rather than exploit them for political gain as several others have.
McCain’s commitment to character and civility was not limited to the campaign trail. On Capitol Hill, he led the condemnation of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA, drawing on his past experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to affirm that morality is not malleable. He provided leadership on many legislative issues, including defense and national security issues, but also in areas less popular with his Republican colleagues, like campaign finance reform. His prioritization of duty ahead of political expediency occasionally put him at odds with his own party, such as with his “no” vote on the “skinny repeal” health care bill in 2017, which killed GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. Unlike several of his colleagues who also voiced severe concerns over that bill, McCain refused to bow to immense political pressure to support the bill, exemplifying his unyielding commitment to do what he thought was right and his refreshing disinterest in political ramifications. McCain was certainly an effective legislator, but he will be remembered not only for his accomplishments, but also for how he achieved them: with civility, candor and character.
Regrettably, these virtues are increasingly rare in our current political landscape. There seem to be few remaining members of Congress and public officials who command the bipartisan admiration and respect, much less to the extent that McCain did. In many ways, McCain’s death appears to mark the end of a broader era, as our nation’s politics continue a descent into bluster and rancor. The 2018 midterm elections serve as an exodus for many moderating, civil voices. Several Republicans with reputations for decorum, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are stepping down. On the Democratic side, few are retiring, but the party’s current civil war between the establishment and progressives has seen progressives supplant several more moderate Democrats, including incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., who was unseated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ideological battles and heated campaigns are a staple of democracy and to be expected, but we must not let civility and character become relics of the past.
Regardless of how the midterms play out, Congress will have quite a few newcomers in 2019. Whether they embrace the sense of duty and honor embodied by John McCain or succumb to the incivility remains to be seen, but the early signs aren’t great. Kelli Ward, a former GOP primary candidate in Arizona’s Senate race, had the audacity to claim that McCain’s decision to end medical treatment was timed to hurt her campaign. At the state level, Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach allegedly hired staffers associated with white supremacist groups. In this era of American politics, demagogues are far more common, and often more successful, than principled statesmen.
John McCain’s legacy of putting country first is one that we must strive to recreate. In a way, it is paradoxical that we widely recognize McCain’s virtues yet routinely support those who fail to emulate them. Politicians who fail to rise above the fray legitimize extreme sentiments and contribute little to the national discussion.
Those who are unwilling to move beyond rhetoric, partisan loyalty and ideological crusades once in office are not worthy of our votes. One does not need to be a moderate or even a maverick to emulate the virtues of McCain. McCain leaves behind a void of decency and respect in our politics, and ultimately it is our responsibility to fill it.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.