The death of Sen. John McCain, who succumbed to aggressive brain cancer at age 81 on Saturday, has prompted a remarkable outpouring of grief and praise. While some of these tributes — often coming from Democrats — are motivated at least in part by loathing of McCain’s archfoe Donald Trump, there is also a very real sense that the late senator represents the kind of stature and nobility that are in danger of becoming extinct in American politics.
McCain’s life and career had a direct relevance to a number of key issues of our time — but two in particular: political polarization, and America’s global role (including our relationship with Russia).
First, McCain (R-Ariz.) was a conscientious objector in the transformation of politics in the United States into a war zone where an opponent was the enemy and no tactics were too low. The moment that famously encapsulated his stance was the 2008 encounter on the campaign trail with an elderly voter at a Minnesota town hall meeting. The woman told him that she couldn’t trust Obama: “I have read about him, and he’s not — um, he’s an Arab . . .” McCain took the microphone from her and replied, gently but firmly, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not.”
Some have criticized McCain for allowing the apparent implication that an Arab cannot be a decent family man and citizen; but that’s an extremely ungenerous reading of an improvised response to an inflammatory comment. McCain was clearly shutting down the suggestion that Obama was not a “real American” — a notion that later flourished in large sections of the conservative movement and fueled the rise of Trump.
Of course McCain sometimes engaged in polarizing partisanship; he was a politician, not a plaster saint. But ultimately, his message was to treat “the other side” as fellow Americans — something sorely needed in public discourse today.
McCain was also an unabashed advocate of American leadership in the world and of the America-led international liberal order, increasingly scorned by both liberals and conservatives. His interventionist vision has been associated with some notable failures such as the Iraq War; for critics, his push for action in Syria meant that he had learned nothing.
But the moral and practical calculus of U.S. interventions abroad is hugely complex. Whether McCain was right or wrong, his vision was unquestionably rooted in a genuine belief that American power could thwart evil and help empower the oppressed, not in a crude desire to impose American dominance. (Notably, while he championed the war on terror, he consistently and staunchly opposed torture.) Leftists who assail McCain as a “warmonger” with a burning desire to bomb “brown kids” seem to forget that the actual wanton killer of brown kids — and adults — is Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator McCain wanted taken down.
McCain’s moralistic hawkishness was also frequently directed at Russia; he was one of the strongest voices against Vladimir Putin’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine and in favor of economic sanctions against the Kremlin regime. This American politician was a hero to Russian dissidents such as Garry Kasparov, as well as to pro-freedom Ukrainians.
McCain’s farewell statement reminds us not to “despair of our present difficulties” and to “believe always in the promise and greatness of America.” His ideals, while certainly subject to debate, were a part of that greatness. If his passing becomes an occasion to reappraise those ideals, it will be his final service to the country he loved.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.