Tomorrow, August 29, would have been John McCain’s 84th birthday. It has been two years since we lost him and we still miss him terribly. So does the nation he served faithfully for sixty years. When John died, our politics lost a strong and often argumentative voice, fighting for the ideals he believed in. He loved a good fight for a good cause. He used to joke, “a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.” And, as his Senate colleagues could attest, he enjoyed quite a few.

But his was also a voice of reason and conciliation. He knew that however sharp our differences, however intense and intemperate our political debates can be, they should not prevent us from respecting each other. He believed our debates should try to persuade and not just antagonize our opponents, and that they shouldn’t paralyze elected officials from working together to defend our common interests and values.

“Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticizes but also accepts . . . isn’t glamorous or exciting,” he acknowledged in his speech he delivered in the Senate a few days after his cancer diagnosis.

“It doesn't feel like a political triumph. But it's usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours. Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, . . . the problem solving our system does make possible, the fitful progress it produces, and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement.”

John’s realistic, yet essentially hopeful message might seem out of step with the temper of our politics today. His birthday occurs at a time of great turmoil and hardship in our country, as many Americans fear our political system is permanently polarized and incapable of responding to the serious problems that beset us. The worst public health crisis in a century. Businesses destroyed and millions of Americans suddenly out of work. Families struggling with the challenges of working and educating children at home. Racial injustice that still plagues our nation more than 130 years after our founding. A rancorous national election replete with outlandish accusations, false charges of voter fraud and attempted interference by foreign adversaries.

What would John have done in these circumstances? The best he could to encourage us that our problems were not insurmountable, and that we must come together to put the nation’s welfare ahead of short term political advantage. He would have argued for his views, fought for his ideas, and reached out to his colleagues in friendship and shared obligation to find a path forward that would give people hope that their government shared their concerns and was responding to them. He would have found all the satisfaction he wanted in helping make America, his “big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country,” a little safer, sounder and more hopeful.

But the anger some people feel for those with opposing political views seems to become more vitriolic and intense with each passing day. At times, given the amplifying power of social media, our differences, which are fewer and less important than the shared values that are supposed to unite us, and the problems afflicting all of us, appear to be all-consuming. The Internet doesn’t typically showcase modest self-awareness and political expression. And it doesn’t always encourage modesty among politicians or a readiness to see an issue from an opponent’s perspective in the hope of finding a little common ground.

People serving in public office should prove worthy of the privilege by rejecting the incivility and narrow-mindedness featured in Internet shouting matches, not echo them in the halls of power. We have little hope of overcoming our common problems, defending our common interests, and advancing our common ideals if our public debates imitate the angriest Twitter feeds.   

In his farewell letter to the American people, written a few months before he died, John urged us to respect those with whom we have political disagreements. That would be his message to us today as we debate how to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild what has been destroyed in its wake.

“If we only … give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times,” he encouraged us.

So let’s try to give each other the benefit of that presumption. Let’s stop pretending any of us has all the answers. Let’s abandon the kind of politics that are failing the country, and give Americans hope that we might prove equal to the difficult tasks history has assigned us. Together, let us try to do some good in the world. John McCain would tell us there is no greater honor.

Cindy McCain is the chair of the Board of Trustees of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Published on Aug 28, 2020