John McCain and the Messages That Mattered
Fifty-five years ago today, Washington, D.C., began filling up with Americans from every part of this country, especially the South. A crowd of 250,000 was expected on the National Mall, and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota stood in the well of the Senate and uttered some of the most prescient words ever spoken in that chamber.
“When this demonstration has been concluded, we will have evidence in abundance that the lamp of liberty still burns across these shores,” he said. “We will learn again the age-old lesson of liberty that America first learned 200 years ago and has been teaching the rest of mankind ever since.” Humphrey then inserted into the Congressional Record the statement released that day by the 10 civil rights organizations coordinating the March on Washington.
A related event -- to my mind -- occurred 10 years ago tonight. In 1963, as HHH knew, it was mainly the Democratic Party that Martin Luther King and the hundreds of thousands of civil rights marchers were trying to reach. Ten years ago today, however, the Democratic Party reached a place that civil rights pioneers like Humphrey, King, and A. Philip Randolph could only dream of -- even as they helped bring it about. I’m speaking about the nomination Barack Obama as Democrats’ 2008 presidential nominee.
John McCain served in the Senate with Obama. In truth, McCain didn’t initially care for Illinois’ junior senator. McCain had hoped to run against Hillary Clinton, whom he liked and respected, as he confided to me over breakfast in 2007. McCain considered Obama too unaccomplished in national politics. Obama had not only cut in line, McCain believed, but he’d made a dubious bargain to get there: Specifically, he helped scuttle a sweeping immigration reform bill that McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy had cobbled together -- and which George W. Bush had promised to sign.
Yet in the summer of 2008, when Barack Obama scaled the mountaintop, becoming the first African-American nominee of a major political party, McCain took time out from his own campaign to offer a grace note of appreciation for this historical accomplishment. It came in the form of a 30-second videotaped spot in which McCain congratulated his general election opponent for his achievement. McCain did so warmly, while alluding subtly to the 1963 march.
That was one of my favorite John McCain moments. Others spring to mind too.
With a month to go in the 2008 general election, a woman at a town-hall event in Lakeville, Minn., told McCain that she didn’t trust Barack Obama, who she described as “an Arab,” apparently referring to various conspiracy theories floating around about Obama being some kind of foreign-born Manchurian candidate with Muslim sympathies.
McCain wouldn’t even listen to it. Taking the microphone from her hand, he cut her ad hominem criticism short.
“No, ma’am,” McCain said of his opponent. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” With that, the audience of Republicans broke into applause.
This exchange was foreshadowed by one that took place months earlier, before McCain had the GOP nomination officially clinched. At a rally in Cincinnati, McCain was introduced by Bill Cunningham, a local conservative radio talk show host, who insulted the news media and the leading Democratic candidates -- twice referring to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama,” stressing his middle name.
Although he wasn’t on stage while this was going on, McCain heard about it, and he took the extraordinary step of going to the press section to disavow his own warm-up speaker.
“I take responsibility, and I repudiate what he said,” he told reporters. “A person came out here before I arrived and made some disparaging remarks about Senators Obama and Clinton, and I regret that. I will not tolerate anything in this campaign that denigrates either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton.”
This doesn’t mean that John McCain was a patsy on the campaign trail -- or that he didn’t want to win. He showed how competitive he was in his very first campaign.
After finally being released from North Vietnam after five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, McCain recovered his health enough to get his wings back as a Navy flier. Serving as a liaison between the Navy and the U.S. Senate, he got the political bug. Although he’ll always be remembered for his two presidential campaigns and his long tenure as a senator from Arizona, McCain’s political career began with a race for a House seat in that state’s sprawling 1st Congressional District.
McCain wasn’t originally from Arizona. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone, raised as a military brat, and attended college at the U.S. Naval Academy. But he’d remarried, settled in suburban Phoenix, and set his sights on a vacant House seat.
He was opposed by several more experienced Republicans who believed they had a more solid claim to the seat. Running against a war hero isn’t easy, so they played the obvious card: McCain, they said, was a carpetbagger who’d only lived in the state for a year. What did he know about the needs of its constituents?
At first, McCain simply replied, correctly, that many people had moved into the district in recent years. But as Robert Timberg noted in his brilliant book “The Nightingale’s Song,” it was a weak answer, and McCain was getting hammered on it. One night, during a debate in which he was pressed on this issue yet again, he turned it all around.
“Listen pal,” he said. “I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things.”
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
As Timberg wrote in describing this scene, the audience sat for a few seconds in shocked silence, “then broke into thunderous applause.”
We are applauding this man still, as we should.