OPED: The senator no one could ignore

Albert R. Hunt
Bloomberg News
John McCain speaks with loyal followers at the Concord Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Concord, N.H., talking mostly about the war in Iraq and about global terror on July 13, 2007. McCain made his first appearance on the trail since shaking up his presidential campaign by replacing his campaign manager and laying off several staffers. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

John Sidney McCain’s life and legacy are summed up by one word: courage. No modern American public figure more embodies that quality than the Arizona senator who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer.

He displayed courage during 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, then he displayed a different kind of courage leading the effort to normalize relations with that country even though it had beaten and tortured him.

His courage was on display when he took on a Republican administration to denounce the use of torture during U.S. interrogations of terror suspects abroad after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Only three months before his death, he opposed President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA; she was a leader of the agency’s torture policies after 9/11. McCain was a favorite of human rights activists, often greeted as a hero during his frequent visits to refugee camps.

It took guts to respond to the embarrassment of accepting campaign contributions from a corrupt banker during the 1980s while he was a freshman senator, by leading a long effort to reform the campaign finance system.

And he stood up to President Donald Trump and Republican congressional colleagues when he returned to the Senate floor last summer with a fresh scar from brain surgery to cast the key vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. Then from his sick bed in March he assailed Trump for making a congratulatory phone call to President Vladimir Putin after the Russian leader’s re-election victory.

“His courage was much like his personality: quick, defiant,” said Mark Salter, McCain’s friend, speechwriter and political alter ego. “He had guts. Others have guts; he used his for other people, particularly the oppressed.” Salter co-authored a half-dozen books with McCain, including one titled, “Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life.”

McCain’s death leaves the Republicans with a 50-49 Senate majority. His replacement will be named by Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, who will face pressure from both a strong right-wing, pro-Trump wing of his party and a faction loyal to McCain. The senator and Trump had genuine contempt for one another.

McCain, who served more than 31 years in the Senate starting in 1987 after four in the House, was one of the two most important American politicians over the last 70 years who never made it to the Oval Office. (The other was Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who died in 2009 after 46 years in the Senate.) He was the senator no one could ignore.

He was a moderate conservative and foreign-policy hawk who opposed dictators, political corruption and Pentagon waste. He admired Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, though he liked to cite as his real heroes President Theodore Roosevelt and the fictional Robert Jordan, the stoic anti-fascist fighter of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

He was no saint. He could display a temper so volcanic that some colleagues thought it made him temperamentally unsuited to be president. (I was on the receiving end of a couple of those outbursts, and strongly disagree.)

Flags flying a half-staff in honor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., frame the U.S. Capital at daybreak in Washington, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. McCain, 81, died at his ranch in Arizona after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

More:War hero and presidential candidate John McCain has died

He also engaged acts of great kindness. When former Democratic Congressman Morris K. Udall was dying of Parkinson’s disease, for example, McCain would go the veterans’ hospital and read to him.

He loved the political arena, identifying with the saying, “A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.” Once he and his friend Kennedy noticed some new lawmakers arguing over an arcane matter on the Senate floor. They decided to join the fray and soon were bellowing at each other, clearing the field. They walked away laughing.

But he was serious about his hard-line foreign policy views, shaped by Vietnam. As a 31-year-old Navy pilot, he was shot down on his 23rd mission over North Vietnam. The son and grandson of admirals, he was brutalized as a trophy prisoner, yet refused an offer to be released ahead of another American who’d been imprisoned longer. In Hanoi there is a plaque by the lake where he was downed; his name is misspelled.

He thought the U.S. didn’t fight to win that war, and became a consistent advocate of U.S. intervention in conflicts from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula. He harbored a special contempt for Putin, whom he considered a thug, and he called energy-reliant Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.” He was deeply suspicious about Trump’s ties to Russia and would have pressed more timid Republicans to investigate them more vigorously if he’d been able to remain active in the Senate.

While conservative on government spending, regulation and some social issues, he maintained working relationships with many liberals and cultivated a reputation as an independent maverick.

His pursuit of campaign finance reform infuriated many of his Republican colleagues. In 2002, he joined forces with the liberal Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to win passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act banning large contributions to national party committees. It won them a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award, though its effect was later blunted by Supreme Court decisions that reopened the spigots for big-money influence peddling in politics. His initiative grew out of what he called his most painful personal moment, taking gifts from a sleazy businessman named Charles Keating.

And while his bipartisan inclinations and appeals for political civility were heartfelt, his choice of the divisive Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate during his 2008 presidential run against Barack Obama also helped legitimize the strain of Republican populism that produced Trump.

If McCain wasn’t mad at you, he was engaging company. Sixteen years ago, my wife and I were preparing to take our children to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. My wife mentioned it to McCain, who insisted that we spend a weekend at a guest cottage on his ranch near Sedona. As a journalist, it made me a little uncomfortable, but it’s hard to say no to John McCain.

The visit was glorious. McCain commandeered the grill and told stories. Our oldest son has severe disabilities and was going through a tough time. McCain took charge, wheeling him around the grounds, making him laugh and forget his worries.

One evening he and I, with glasses of wine, were sitting by the creek as he related the advice he’d given to his friend and fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, John Kerry. Kerry was planning a run for president, so McCain reminded him of another military hero who tried and failed to reach the White House.

“John Glenn was a much bigger hero than either of us,” McCain remembered saying. “This can get you in the room but then you have to fill it.”

In an extraordinary life, John McCain filled the room.

— Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at The Wall Street Journal. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.