Not just a war hero; an American hero

Not just a war hero; an American hero
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It may have been the defining moment of John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSinema invokes McCain in Senate acceptance speech Overnight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — Medicaid expansion gets extra boost from governors' races | Utah's expansion to begin April 1 | GOP lawmaker blames McCain for Dems winning House Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases MORE’s political legacy. At an October 2008 town hall-style rally in Lakeville, Minnesota, around his bid for the presidency against his Democratic rival, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaActivist: Focusing on state-level politics can help Democrats beat GOP gerrymandering Press: Trumpism takes a thumping The Memo: Dem hopes for 2020 grow in midterms afterglow MORE, a woman stood up to ask McCain a question. McCain handed her his microphone. “I do not trust Obama. I’ve read about him and he’s not — he’s, he’s an Arab,” she contended. McCain, shaking his head, gently took the mic from her. “No, ma’am,” he said firmly. “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen who I happen to disagree with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s about.”

The moment, perhaps, says all one needs to know about John McCain. Served up a piece of red meat that he could have seized to rev up the partisan crowd and build a divisive movement, McCain refused to take a bite. He opted instead to nobly run his campaign on the merits, and not to fan the flames of demagoguery for the sake of political gain.

The importance of taking the high road was a formative lesson McCain had embraced eight years earlier while seeking his party’s presidential nomination against his main challenger, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush. During the all-important South Carolina primary, when asked whether the Confederate flag should be allowed to fly over the state’s capitol, McCain ducked the question, defending the flag as a “symbol of heritage.” It was a politically expedient move — and not one of which McCain was proud. “I feared that if I answered honestly,” he explained later, “I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles.” He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.


Principles intact, McCain may well have lost the 2008 presidential election in Lakeville, Minnesota. As we saw several years later from Donald Trump, who began his political rise by questioning President Obama’s American citizenship and launched his own presidential bid by scapegoating illegal Mexican immigrants, lowest common denominator tactics — cheap and vulgar as they are — can work as a strategy toward victory. But they come at a cost: disunity, division and discord.

John McCain was bigger than that. Winning dishonorably, he suggested, was not winning at all.

Honor is the quality that most defined McCain. Despite his manifest flaws — which he freely conceded, just as he did his error in judgment in South Carolina — his honor was revealed throughout his life of service. Shot down over Hanoi during a Vietnam War mission as a U.S. Navy aviator, McCain famously declined an early release from a North Vietnamese prison knowing that it would be used as a propaganda tool to demoralize those who had been imprisoned longer but who weren’t the sons of a Navy admiral.

The consequence was a five-and-a-half-year sentence suffused with torture by his captors. But just over two decades after the experience, as senator from his adopted state of Arizona, he worked with President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonOn The Money: Dems mark Trump tax returns as key part of agenda | Waters defends planned probe of Trump finances after GOP backlash | Reports: Trump mulls replacing Commerce chief Ross by end of year Dems mark Trump tax returns as key part of agenda After the hype: A ‘softer’ Trump, collegial Pelosi MORE to normalize relations with Vietnam. McCain didn’t let bitterness get in the way of doing what was best for our nation.

He approached partisanship the same way, reliably putting country above party. That became evident just over a year ago, when McCain, the ailing maverick, flashed a defiant thumbs down to defeat the repeal of ObamaCare, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history Sinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups MORE championed as a political imperative.

The two men, of course, had been at odds before. During the searing election cycle of 2016, after McCain voiced concerns over Trump’s scorched-earth campaign, Trump shamefully denied that McCain was a war hero. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump maintained.

To that, as we mourn McCain’s loss, we can all say, “No, sir. No, sir. He was a true American hero, someone whose character reflected the best of who we are.” Moreover, we would all best honor the late senator not just by celebrating his extraordinary legacy, but by emulating it.  

Mark K. Updegrove is president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and author of “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.”