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John McCain was true to himself, his virtues

Then-Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is

Then-Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is greeted by supporters in Perkasie, Pa., on Nov. 1, 2008. Credit: The Washington Post / Melina Mara

The world has lost a man of courage.

The passing of John Sidney McCain III on Saturday night, the prisoner of war who became senior U.S. senator from Arizona and ran for the presidency, is a reminder of what our political discourse is lacking today.

McCain, 81, never shied away from difficult positions and fought for America’s interests. As a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, he understood service, and later learned about fortitude at the hands of his North Vietnamese torturers. Sadly, President Donald Trump failed to recognize McCain’s courage, saying during the 2016 presidential campaign that there was nothing heroic about the nearly six years McCain spent as a prisoner of war. Trump, who sought and received four draft deferments, added: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

But the nation was captured and captivated by McCain’s life and service. On issues of national security and foreign policy, McCain always was relied on to know the facts and always voted his conscience — regardless of party. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he fought for veterans, supported U.S. foreign assistance, and took controversial stances. One of McCain’s most notable controversial votes, of course, was his break with the GOP on the repeal of Obamacare when he voted against the “skinny” bill that would have rolled back some of the Affordable Care Act provisions.

As a Democrat, I at times disagreed with his positions and his criticisms of President Barack Obama, but I never questioned his motives. For example, on Syria, he was right to criticize the Obama administration for not doing more to resolve the crisis. On Crimea, he was right to criticize the Obama administration for not taking faster and stronger actions to deter the Russians. On ISIS, he was right to call for stronger counter-terrorism measures.

McCain held bipartisan views. He believed deeply in American democracy and the importance of U.S. engagement overseas. The longtime Republican never hesitated to side with Democrats such as on the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, when he worked with then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to reform federal election laws.

McCain also was among the most vocal Republican advocates for comprehensive immigration reform. He often worked across the aisle with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died on the same day in 2009 of the same form of brain cancer McCain battled.

McCain had praise for Democrats, such as Dianne Feinstein of California, for their work on intelligence issues and disclosures. “The truth is sometimes hard to swallow,” he said in a floor statement in 2014, when he called for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s unclassified review of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used to capture terrorists. “But the American people are entitled [to the truth], nonetheless,” he added.

And he was true to himself and his virtues even as he fought glioblastoma, an extremely virulent form of brain cancer. He continued to speak truth to power, including calling on fellow senators in May to oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA and blasting Trump’s remarks about Russia’s Vladimir Putin in July in Helsinki as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

John McCain will be remembered as an honorable man and a true American hero — one who is already terribly missed.

Tara D. Sonenshine served as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy in the Obama administration and currently advises students at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.