John McCain clashed with both Democrats and Republicans. He fought with political allies as well as enemies. Politically adept, he would routinely abandon party for principle. His character and sense of honor were evident in victory and in defeat.
The senator from Arizona was a complicated man.
Yet through it all, he was ready to fight for what he believed was best for what he called “this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country.”
Sen. McCain, who died Saturday, reflected this complex description of the nation he loved, both as a "maverick" GOP senator and as an eloquent exponent of the traditional American way of governing.
He lived a life of service to his country, as a Navy fighter pilot, a prisoner of war, a long-time U.S. senator and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. Along the way, he also earned detractors who saw political expediency among his sometimes inconsistent stances on immigration, tax reform and other issues.
But Sen. McCain earned the right to speak his mind. In what will long be remembered as a major speech about the importance of “regular order” in the legislative process, he said last year that narrow partisanship is no way to govern a dynamic nation, and that “responsibility [to serve the nation] is more important than any of our personal interests and political affiliations.”
Afterward he voted to defeat an anti-Obamacare bill sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., his close friend and most loyal ally. He did so not to defend Obamacare — he considered its party-line passage a mistake — but because none of the alternatives met his standard of a new law based on the broadest possible bipartisanship.
Afterward, Sen. Graham said, “My friendship with John McCain is not based on how he votes, but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.”
Sen. McCain gained a reputation as a maverick because of his adherence to principle above partisanship. But he was a skilled bare-knuckle political infighter, leading to complaints from many colleagues. As he noted in his “regular order” speech, given after returning from cancer surgery last summer, “I’ve had so many people say such nice things about me recently that I think some of you must have me confused with someone else.”
Discussing his recently published memoir, “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations,” he told The New York Times that he wanted Americans to “recover our sense that we are more alike than different.” Sen. Graham said the book “should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead a democracy,” and that it promotes the idea that “America’s values make us better than our enemies.”
After more than five years of crippling torture by his North Vietnamese captors, Sen. McCain was an outspoken opponent of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA following the 9/11 attacks. He opposed their use even though they were instituted by a Republican administration and supported by a ruling from the Justice Department. Even as he suffered through the final stages of the brain cancer that claimed his life, he opposed the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA because she would not categorically denounce such techniques as torture although she vowed the agency would never use them again.
Sen. McCain was released from a Vietnamese prison in 1973 and later assigned as a liaison officer to Congress, pointing him in his new direction. Instead of following his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals, into a military career, he retired and turned to politics, bringing with him the toughness, determination and strong moral sense he had developed as a POW who resisted torture and turned down a chance for early release. He once enigmatically told a reporter that the prison experience “saved me,” presumably forcing him to choose what he stood for and hone his character accordingly.
“It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy," he later wrote. "That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it.”
Despite the rancor and turmoil roiling the country last year, Sen. McCain remained upbeat about the country he loved and served honorably.
"I still believe that we’re the best nation on Earth,” he told The Washington Post. “I still would not bet against the United States of America. ... But we’re going through some very choppy waters. We’ve got to appeal to the better angels of our nature.”
John McCain lived a complicated life but he clearly loved America, reflecting its messiness and frustrations but also its values, character, defiance and, above all, sense of responsibility. Those are the traits Americans should honor as we remember the patriotic, maverick senator.