Bankole: The rarity of Sen. John McCain’s politics

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News
John McCain has been a principled leader, Thompson writes.

Editor's note: This column was originally published July 23, 2017. 

While prayers are needed for the swift recovery of U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was just diagnosed with brain cancer last week, we also need to fervently pray and hope that his brand of politics — which is to put country first above party — doesn’t vanish completely in Washington, D.C. There is much to learn from the Vietnam War hero. There is much to emulate from the Arizona maverick.

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His positively principled character has been a shining light for many, and his voice of objectivity and candor has been a reassurance and constant reminder of the need to protect the basic tenet of this nation’s democratic values that no one is better than the other.

Think about it.

When faced with the choice of eating the stale meat of birtherism and exclusionary politics sandwiched with fear, McCain chose the politics of honor and affirmed the dignity and humanity of his opponent, despite their differences on the complex policy questions.

McCain’s instructive season came in 2008 in the midst of a heated presidential campaign when he was the Republican flagbearer running against Democrat Barack Obama.

During a town hall meeting, one of McCain’s supporters feeding into the birther frenzy, said at the time, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh … he’s an Arab …”

McCain grabbed the microphone from the woman and countered with this: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man (citizen) that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not an Arab.”

At the said town hall forum, McCain told another supporter, “I have to tell you Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” Despite the boos he was receiving for countering their birther conspiracy theories, he kept his statesman-like stance.

Besides, it was also a proud moment to see McCain demonstrate the qualities of statesmanship, which is to rise above the chasms that foment division and perpetuate political bitterness and racial hatred.

Other politicians seeking only to win an election at all costs could easily have gone a different route, affirming the unfounded fears of their supporters and further fueling the bitter birther movement. They could have used some of the remarks at that town hall in campaign ads to further divide the nation.

Not Sen. McCain.

He did not see the need to do that. He wasn’t going to win an election by any ignoble means necessary. He was a bigger man who was looking beyond the politics of cynicism and the instant gratification that comes from those who were bent on making Obama the quintessential “other.”

The indelible lesson he offered everyone is that in order to make a significant difference in politics, you don’t have to sell your soul to the forces of fear and hatred. McCain demonstrated during that 2008 encounter that this nation’s future is bigger than any interest group that seeks to divide it.

What I would remember McCain for is not the legislation he pushed through Congress. Rather, it is that moment when he was challenged by some of his own supporters to personally stigmatize and delegitimize his opponent for the benefit of his campaign, but he refused as a matter of honor and principle. His conscience prevailed over political expediency.

Perhaps, that is one of the things that cost him the election. But that too is the price you pay for being a principled leader.

So when true historians throw their focal lens on his contributions, they will likely come to the conclusion that his actions were informed by the weight of history; they will applaud him for refusing to give oxygen to a movement bent on undermining the identity and legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.

That is the mark of an exemplary statesman. In modern day America, John McCain is indeed a hero of heroes.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

The writer hosts “Redline with BankoleThompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.