Editorial: John McCain should be memorialized as a statesman

Aug 28, 2018 at 4:30 AM

When such a storied being as John McCain passes, we are left with defining images that sum up a lost hero and carry his legacy forward.

Enduring depictions of the longtime Arizona senator include a young naval aviator bandaged but not broken during 5 1/2 years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, a principled politician who declined to engage in personal attacks when offered the opportunity and an unpredictable lawmaker who occasionally bucked Republican colleagues to make a point.

That an opposing political party leader has proposed renaming a Capitol Hill office building in his honor says much about how McCain’s life may ultimately be memorialized — as an all-too-rare statesman who earned respect across party lines. That’s something seriously lacking in these days of hyperpartisan politics and extremist loyalties.

McCain’s passing on Saturday at 81 was swift on the heels of word the day before that he was declining further treatment for an aggressive brain cancer he had been fighting for a year.

A legacy of service to his country began when he followed family tradition and enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. That will be the site of his private funeral on Sunday following public viewings as his body lies in state first in the Arizona State Capitol on Wednesday and in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

The son and grandson of four-star admirals, McCain did not distinguish himself academically, graduating near the bottom in a class of 894 ensigns. But he did establish his military bona fides when he was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967 and remained a POW until 1973.

He was widely praised for uncommon courage while enduring harsh treatment as a high-ranking officer and then refusing an opportunity for early release, extended to him as the son of the U.S. commander in the Pacific, because he would have leapfrogged others who had been captive longer.

McCain’s 35 years of representing Arizona in Congress included being elected twice in the House and six times in the Senate, but he fell short of his goal to be elected president. His 2000 campaign was abbreviated. He then won the Republican nomination in 2008 and in a concession with class, congratulated Barack Obama, a fellow senator and the nation’s first African-American president, for achieving “a great thing for himself and his country.”

In the 2008 campaign, McCain had famously responded to a woman who had called Obama untrustworthy as “an Arab” by answering, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

True to those disagreements, McCain opposed enactment of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act in 2010, but he later kept Obamacare alive in 2017 with a memorable right-thumb-down against GOP repeal efforts.

He was not just being contrary but using his pivotal vote to send a message that it was time for Washington lawmakers to return to “the old way of legislating” with full hearings and bipartisan debate, a message sadly unheeded.

How fitting for the Russell Senate Office Building where he worked to be renamed for him, as proposed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York to honor someone he remembers as “a truth teller.”

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