Merriam-Webster defines “statesman” as “one versed in the principles or art of government; especially: one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government or in shaping its policies.”
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who passed away Saturday after a year-long battle with brain cancer, modeled statesmanship as well or better than anyone who found themselves in the political limelight over the last 30 years.
Even as our nation became more polarized politically, with many setting up camp on the extreme left or extreme right, McCain, a Republican who won the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 before losing to Barack Obama in the general election, remained a true statesman, often showing a willingness to work with and compromise with Democrats, unafraid to publicly disagree with his own party when he thought it was wrong.
That independent streak sometimes disappointed or angered those on the right, including yours truly, who has criticized McCain in this space in the past for killing GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. But the longtime senator didn’t care enough about the critics to allow his principles to be compromised.
It’s why many of us continued to admire McCain even when we disagreed with him. McCain never gave in to the growing ugliness of our nation’s political landscape. Instead, he continued to try to rise above it.
Never was that more true than during and after the 2008 presidential race against Obama. About a month before the election, Rolling Stone magazine published what can be best described as a foul-mouthed hit piece on the Arizona senator. It called into question virtually everything McCain had done in his life, even going so far as to challenge the severity of the hell-on-earth treatment McCain received as a POW during the Vietnam War. About the only thing the piece didn’t critizce was McCain’s bathroom habits.
If McCain was left bitter by his 2008 loss, however, he never let it affect how he conducted himself as a senator or politician. And despite the ugliness of the Rolling Stone article and what had to have been the frustration of running against and losing to media darling Obama, McCain continued to respect the media, telling NBC that shutting down the free press is “how dictators get started.”
And as we look back on McCain’s life, it’s certainly not out of line to wonder what kind of president he would have been had he prevailed over Obama.
As Boston Review noted in a March 2018 story about the Obama presidency, “In the end, there are only two ways a president can forge a legacy in U.S. politics: accomplish things with bipartisan support, or nurture his political party so that people are elected who will carry on and protect his accomplishments. Obama’s legacy is in trouble because he did neither.”
In his last State of the Union address, Obama acknowledged his inability to bring political opposites together: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency. That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Could a President McCain, with his willingness to reach across the aisle and backed by the power of the presidency, have brought us closer together, helped forge compromises on issues such as illegal immigration and made statesmanship cool again?
We’ll never know. But in this era of acidic partisanship, there’s little doubt we could use a few more statesmen on both sides of the political aisle.
Lew Gilliland is the editor of The Daily Home newspaper. Reach him at email@example.com.