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McCain’s cancer — The congressional peace maker


There are moments in the life of America that matter — moments in which the frenzy of partisan politics seems to stand still. Sometimes those moments crystallize with timely and well-spoken words. Sometimes party politics vaporizes as the reality of our own mortality penetrates our psyche. And sometimes they merge when frailty of human life encourages politicians to step back from the immediacy of the battle and speak higher-minded words of wisdom.

A half-dozen words spoken in 1954 changed the course of history. At a dramatic Senate hearing, an Army attorney confronted and tackled the cruelty, recklessness, and bullying of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) with a simple and biting question that effectively ended the fear-based anticommunist’s career: “Have you no sense of decency?” It’s still a good question to ask today of many political leaders.

{mosads}After the June 14, 2017 shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others at a congressional baseball practice game, there was bipartisan outrage. In the face of such an assault, everyone was reminded that life is short, and petty and partisan fights should have no place in how we live and govern.


Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared to House that “an attack on one of use is an attack on all of us.” His comments were met with bipartisan applause, an increasingly rare occurrence. It is unfortunate that the shooting did not have a lasting impact in promoting bipartisan cooperation on the key issues facing America.

Just days after he had been diagnosed with a dangerous and lethal brain cancer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stood before his colleagues on July 25 and delivered an eloquent speech that is well worth reading or listening to. He encouraged the Senate to reject the vitriolic and partisan rancor that has increasingly consumed the process of governance.

Unfortunately, the take-no-prisoners approach to governance has been encouraged by partisan purists of both stripes — and especially by President Trump.

Republicans, Democrats, independents — all Americans — would do well to pause from the boisterous brawling of our times and listen to the maverick Arizona senator’s reflections on governing and his plea for civility.

McCain’s dramatic speech to his colleagues was classic American — and an appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

It was not a partisan address we have come to expect in the hyper-partisan era of the 21st century. Rather it was one that sought to reduce the heat of today’s political friction by reminding his fellow senators of their constitutional responsibilities that ultimately must trump their own political interests or the interests of any political party.

Part history lesson and partly a gentle rebuke to his colleagues, McCain interspersed his comments with humor and humility, a trait in short supply today in both the legislative and executive branches.

“I’ve had so many people say such nice things about me recently,” McCain dryly noted, “that I think some of you must have me confused with someone else.” He added he has been privileged to know some of the “giants of American politics” over his 30 years in Congress.

In an era where compromise is viewed as unprincipled and weak, and where politicians fear they will fail an ideological litmus test often imposed by extremists on both sides of the aisle, McCain reminded the Senate that compromise is not a dirty word.

“The most revered members of this institution,” McCain recalled, “accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.” Compromise is not flashy, “glamorous or exciting” he noted, but it stands at the core of our system of government.

Certainly not a saint himself, McCain confessed his own role in the decline of the decorum of the Senate whose deliberations, he understatedly commented, “haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”

He acknowledged “sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”

McCain’s call for civility stands in marked contrast to Trump’s scorched earth twitterstorms, his lack of civility and respect for people and the institutions of government — and his continued personal attacks on practically everyone, including his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Does it take a life-threatening illness to jolt people into reality? Sometimes it does. A sense of their own mortality may shock some politicians into realizing that they are sent to Washington to govern and not to win the battle of throwing the most sand in the sandbox.

By his own admission, McCain has been a rabid partisan at times. He’s also been somewhat of a maverick. His career is certainly not without blemish. As part of the Keating Five savings and loan corruption scandal of 1989, McCain was cleared but admonished for having exercised “poor judgment.” And who can forget his embarrassingly incoherent and rambling questions of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June?

But McCain’s transparent response to his cancer is refreshing. There are two common responses to such a diagnosis among politicians: either a transparent acknowledgment of one’s own humanity and mortality, or a cover-up denying any illness.

McCain, unlike others, including presidents Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, has chosen to be open about his diagnosis.

McCain now has a forum and audience eager to listen to him in his time remaining.

Will McCain’s brain cancer, a menacingly urgent reminder of his own mortality, encourage him to speak more bluntly, honestly and civilly now? Will he push against the partisanship that has overtaken Congress and promote compromise?

Will the senator continue to take on the president, as he did in a recent jab noting that “major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter”?


Will McCain go so far as to offer his own “have you no sense of decency” criticism of Trump?

McCain admonished “whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal.” Will Congress listen?

In the midst of partisan squabbling, McCain understands that Congress is “an important check on the powers of the executive,” an urgent message in the times of an unruly presidency.

McCain would be wise not to squander the moment that has been thrust upon him by his cancer, but to use his illness for the benefit of the nation, as he has begun to do with his recent Senate speech. It’s an important part of how history will remember him.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, BBC and others.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Sessions John McCain John McCain Mike Purdy Paul Ryan
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