In op-ed, glimpses of the mythical John McCain

ver the last several years, many journalists have watched the John McCain we admired in 2000 — perhaps unrealistically — slip away, replaced by an increasingly angry, scowling figure who in 2008, gave the world Sarah Palin, complete with those frightening rallies, and lost the presidency. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post, however, that old, mythic John McCain seemed to return.

The op-ed is the Senator’s first formal response to the shootings. He was barely visible on camera at the memorial in Tuscson. In it, McCain praises President Obama’s speech to the nation, in about as gracious a manner as it gets. He also calls for a return to civility, and makes what I think are some pretty personal admissions. A key passage, in which McCain is clearly defending both President Obama and Sarah Palin, but also, it seems, revealing something about himself:

…We Americans have different opinions on how best to serve that noble purpose. We need not pretend otherwise or be timid in our advocacy of the means we believe will achieve it. But we should be mindful as we argue about our differences that so much more unites than divides us. We should also note that our differences, when compared with those in many, if not most, other countries, are smaller than we sometimes imagine them to be.

I disagree with many of the president’s policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals. And I reject accusations that Americans who vigorously oppose his policies are less intelligent, compassionate or just than those who support them.

Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so. It probably asks too much of human nature to expect any of us to be restrained at all times by persistent modesty and empathy from committing rhetorical excesses that exaggerate our differences and ignore our similarities. But I do not think it is beyond our ability and virtue to refrain from substituting character assassination for spirited and respectful debate.

Public life has many more privileges than hardships. First among them is the satisfying purpose it gives our lives to make a contribution to the progress of a nation that was conceived to defend the rights and dignity of human beings. It can be a bruising business at times, but in the end its rewards are greater than the injuries sustained to earn them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that those injuries are always easy to slough off and bear with perfect equanimity. Political leaders are not and cannot reasonably be expected to be indifferent to the cruelest calumnies aimed at their character. Imagine how it must feel to have watched one week ago the incomprehensible massacre of innocents committed by someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity, to have shared in the heartache for its victims and in the admiration for those who acted heroically to save the lives of others – and to have heard in the coverage of that tragedy voices accusing you of complicity in it.

It does not ask too much of human nature to have the empathy to understand how wrong an injury that is or appreciate how strong a need someone would feel to defend him or herself against such a slur. Even to perceive it in the context of its supposed political effect and not as the claim of the human heart to the dignity we are enjoined by God and our founding ideals to respect in one another is unworthy of us, and our understanding of America’s meaning.

There are too many occasions when we lack that empathy and mutual respect on all sides of our politics, and in the media. But it is not beyond us to do better; to behave more modestly and courteously and respectfully toward one another; to make progress toward the ideal that beckons all humanity: to treat one another as we would wish to be treated. …

Read the whole piece here. Well worth it.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Dan Balz wonders whether the op-ed could be the beginning of a thaw between two men who clearly have developed a rollicking mutual dislike over the last several years:

McCain and Obama will never be comrades in arms. They have too much history, too much mutual ill will and too many philosophical differences for that. In the two years since McCain went down to defeat against Obama, the tension between the them has been evident in almost every public setting in which they’ve appeared.

But in praising the president’s speech at Wednesday’s memorial service in Tucson, McCain has reached out to Obama with an open hand. Not since his gracious concession speech on the night of the election has McCain spoken so generously of his rival. Obama should not let the opportunity pass to reach out to McCain in return.

Balz goes on to describe some of the incidents that have fueled Obama and McCain’s bad relationship, but I think he’s right that if indeed the two men find comity, it could be mutually beneficial — for the president on key items like immigration reform, and for McCain, to begin to restore his legacy.

We’ll see if it happens. McCain has already signed on to Sen. Mark Udall’s bipartisan SOTU seating idea. And he and John Kyl are working to name a new federal courthouse in Arizona after slain Judge John Roll. These are good things, and for McCain, provide unequivocally positive imagery after a bruising campaign and a hard tack to the right that has separated him from his former admirers in the media. And not for nothing, but McCain is one of the few Republican politicians still capable of serving as a moderating check on his former running-mate, whose instincts for attack politics have only been sharpened since being freed from the McCain ticket.

This one will be interesting to watch.

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3 Responses to In op-ed, glimpses of the mythical John McCain

  1. I've watched you on MSNBC. You are just great and so relevant.

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