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Horowitz: John McCain; Country First

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


John McCain PHOTO: River Bissonnette/Wikipedia

“Some lives are so vivid it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled, said former President George W. Bush, upon the death of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) this past weekend.  While we will desperately miss his unsparing "straight talk”, which recently has been correctly aimed at our current president, the example of his life, dedicated to a purpose larger than self---namely his country- will live on long after the 21 gun salutes and eulogies have ended.

While not immune to political calculation, such as his marked move to the right to fend off a primary challenge in his most recent re-election campaign, we grew accustomed to his candid, sometimes irascible, but usually brave and constructive voice in our national politics.  Through-out a more than 30 year career in politics, John McCain lived up to the slogan of his 2008 Presidential campaign:  putting “country first.”

The Naval Academy graduate was first introduced to the nation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he rejected an offer to be released early by his North Vietnamese captors because his father was an American admiral, denying the enemy a propaganda victory and doing so despite being severely tortured. McCain spent 51/2 long years under the worst kind of conditions and was left with permanent painful wounds. Yet, as a senator, he was instrumental in normalizing relations with Vietnam because he believed it was in the national interest.

Senator McCain was a voice for principled bi-partisan compromise, leading the successful fight for campaign finance reform.  Working with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), McCain won adoption of the McCain-Feingold bill, restricting the use of soft money by political parties, among other sensible features.  Unfortunately, the positive impact of this landmark law was dramatically reduced by the Supreme Court’s ill-advised decision in the Citizens United case, which re-opened the floodgates of special interest money in our politics.

McCain was also a leader on the so far unsuccessful efforts to win adoption of comprehensive immigration reform.   Legislation he co-sponsored that included a path to citizenship and tougher border security cleared the Senate, but failed to get a floor vote in the House of Representatives. As his party under President Trump moved to a more hardline anti-immigration position, McCain stayed true to his beliefs, continuing to work for immigration reform up until the very end  as well as continuing to speak out for the values that underlie the legislation. He was  one of the few Republican elected officials, for example, who strongly criticized President Trump’s travel restrictions for residents of certain Muslim nations.

Senator McCain was one of the most consistent and strongest critics of President Trump’s refusal to plainly state that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election and his cozying up to Putin.   The long-time chair of the Armed Services Committee blasted Trump’s Helsinki performance: “ Today’s press conference was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egoism,  false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is incalculable.”

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will deliver eulogies at the funeral, visibly symbolizing the bi-partisan cooperation that McCain championed over his years in the US Senate.  Obama and Bush both defeated John McCain in presidential contests. As a result, their prominent speaking roles send a strong message that one can respect and work with political opponents. Demonizing opponents as enemies, McCain believed was not only counter-productive; it made it more difficult for our democracy to function well.  McCain amplified this message, by making it known before his death that Trump, who launches nasty, personal and false attacks on a daily basis, would not be welcome to attend.

“Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles,” wrote John McCain in his military memoir, Faith of My Fathers. As a soldier and as a politician, he lived his creed. 

Barack Obama pointed to the power of McCain’s example in a statement issued upon his death., "Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own.  At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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