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Nation needs McCain’s steady voice

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during an election party

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during an election party in Charleston, S.C., in 2008. Credit: AP / Steven Senne

We’ve never needed Arizona Sen. John McCain more than we do now. It’s tempting to add “and others like him” to that statement, but there aren’t any politicians quite like him.

And it feels as if the threat of losing him, warts and all, has reminded us how valuable he is.

Word came Wednesday that McCain, whose 81st birthday is next month, has been diagnosed with a virulent type of brain tumor. The bipartisan outpouring of love was immediate. He’s been in the Senate 30 years, taking the spot Barry Goldwater left in the chamber.

So many adjectives come to mind to describe McCain, a prisoner of war in Hanoi for 51⁄2 years. A Navy pilot, he refused early release offered because he was the son and grandson of admirals. As a two-time presidential candidate, he’s an icon. He has been by turns noble, courageous, loutish, brash, independent, tone-deaf, surly, loyal, lovable and maddening.

He has stood up for this nation, and for what he believes is right, no matter the politics. On immigration, on defense, on judicial appointments and on controlling campaign financing, McCain has taken principled stands, no matter the cost.

President Donald Trump and his retinue face increasing scrutiny. An FBI director has been fired for challenging Trump. A special counsel looking into Trump is under attack by Trump. The president has attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from an investigation involving Sessions’ own meetings with the Russians. We want to rely on McCain to stand strong for this nation’s principles and institutions once again. His track record suggests he would.

McCain first sought the presidency in 2000. He was unable to raise his arms above his shoulders thanks to injuries from his torturers, and unable to hold his tongue, thanks to his character. On a bus named the “Straight Talk Express,” he would hold court for hours, charming the cynical press.

McCain never ducked a question, and his candidacy spit in the establishment’s eye. George W. Bush had the money, a presidential daddy and an iffy war record in the Air National Guard. But McCain seized the nation’s imagination, and won the New Hampshire primary.

Then the establishment took back the reins. Bush crushed “maverick” McCain in the South Carolina primary when push polls popped up telling voters the Arizona senator had fathered a black baby out of wedlock, among other smears. In fact, McCain and his wife had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh, but his loss led Bush to the nomination.

When McCain ran in 2008, the landscape had changed. He could not believe the press had abandoned its love affair with him and fallen for Barack Obama. That race featured McCain’s worst moments: choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, and showily “suspending” his campaign for the financial crisis, only to zoom back to the trail.

But in 2008, McCain also showed the nation how to deal with a simmering ugliness. When a woman at a rally said, “I can’t trust Obama . . . he’s an Arab,” McCain took the microphone and said, “No ma’am, no ma’am . . . He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Trump, in contrast, led the “birther” movement. And in his own presidential race, he disparaged McCain for being captured by the North Vietnamese.

Now the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, McCain is an elder statesman and a voice of reason in a GOP majority that has far too few.

In 2015, McCain told an interviewer he had already chosen the epitaph for his tombstone: “He served his country.”

Pray it won’t be carved anytime soon.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.