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The Senator No One Could Ignore

The Senator No One Could Ignore

Tuesday, 28 August, 2018 - 07:15

John Sidney McCain's life and legacy are summed up by one word: courage. No modern American public figure more embodies that quality than the Arizona senator who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer.

He displayed courage during five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, then he displayed a different kind of courage leading the effort to normalize relations with that country even though it had beaten and tortured him.

McCain was a favorite of human rights activists, often greeted as a hero during his frequent visits to refugee camps.

It took guts to respond to the embarrassment of accepting campaign contributions from a corrupt banker during the 1980s while he was a freshman senator, by leading a long effort to reform the campaign-finance system.

"His courage was much like his personality: quick, defiant," said Mark Salter, McCain's friend, speechwriter and political alter ego. "He had guts. Others have guts; he used his for other people, particularly the oppressed." Salter co-authored a half-dozen books with McCain, including one titled, "Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life."

McCain's death leaves the Republicans with a 50-49 Senate majority. His replacement will be named by the state's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, who will face pressure from both a strong right-wing, pro-Trump wing of his party and a faction loyal to McCain. The senator and Trump had genuine contempt for one another.

McCain, who served more than 31 years in the Senate starting in 1987 after four in the House, was one of the two most important American politicians over the last 70 years who never made it to the Oval Office. (The other was Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who died in 2009 after 46 years in the Senate.) He was the senator no one could ignore.

He was a moderate conservative and foreign-policy hawk who opposed dictators, political corruption and Pentagon waste. He admired Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, though he liked to cite as his real heroes President Theodore Roosevelt and the fictional Robert Jordan, the stoic anti-fascist fighter of Ernest Hemingway's novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

He was no saint. He could display a temper so volcanic that some colleagues thought it made him temperamentally unsuited to be president. (I was on the receiving end of a couple of those outbursts, and strongly disagree.)

He also engaged acts of great kindness. When former Democratic Congressman Morris K. Udall was dying of Parkinson's disease, for example, McCain would go the veterans' hospital and read to him.

He loved the political arena, identifying with the saying "A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed." But he was serious about his hard-line foreign policy views, shaped by Vietnam. As a 31-year-old Navy pilot, he was shot down on his 23rd mission over North Vietnam. The son and grandson of admirals, he was brutalized as a trophy prisoner, yet refused an offer to be released ahead of another American who'd been imprisoned longer.

He thought the US didn't fight to win that war, and became a consistent advocate of US intervention in conflicts from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula. He harbored a special contempt for Putin.

While conservative on government spending, regulation and some social issues, he maintained working relationships with many liberals and cultivated a reputation as an independent maverick.

His pursuit of campaign-finance reform infuriated many of his Republican colleagues. In 2002, he joined forces with the liberal Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to win passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act banning large contributions to national party committees. It won them a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award, though its effect was later blunted by Supreme Court decisions that reopened the spigots for big-money influence peddling in politics. His initiative grew out of what he called his most painful personal moment, taking gifts from a sleazy businessman named Charles Keating.


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