Faith & Politics / The Long Versions

John McCain – A Memory

Image: Senator John McCain speaks at a rally I attended as a young reporter in 2008. via AP

John McCain, senior Senator from Arizona and a leading figure in the Republican Party (US), has died four days after his 81st birthday after taking himself off a treatment regimen for brain cancer.

I turned eighteen in 2006, and in November 2008, I voted for the first time. At the time I was a reporter/journalist for a regional newspaper serving the Latin American community in the Midwest US, and was living in my mother’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa, a solidly Democrat corner of one of the country’s most noted swing states.

The choice between Barack Obama, a young, charismatic, and African American senator from neighbouring Illinois, and John McCain was a difficult one. In the end, McCain stood out on two fronts – he was a passionate supporter of migrant’s rights and of comprehensive immigration reform, and he was an economic “liberal conservative” who responded to the banking crisis of 2008 with a moderate Keynesianism which, at the time, was central to the Republican brand.

Both Obama and McCain held multiple rallies in Iowa, a small but pivotal state in the hotly contested upper Midwest. Obama had won Iowa in the primary, while the Republicans had voted for social conservative Mike Huckabee. Obama would go on to win Iowa by over nine points – the largest democrat margin since 1996. The left was experiencing a rare moment of galvinization and unity.

Meanwhile, on the right, malcontent and passionate voices on the right were beginning to surface. Those on the more liberal-centrist wing of the American conservative movement – many of them my close friends and colleagues – remained convinced that their path was the path of the party’s future, as was I. McCain was, in most respects, emblematic of that future.

I attended one of McCain’s rallies on 11 October, 2008, less than a month before election day. The day before the rally, McCain had firmly corrected one of his supporters in neighbouring Minnesota, who had echoed a conspiratorial claim that his opponent, Obama, was an Arab. At that rally, the voters seemed a lot more eager to “fight” Barack Obama than his official opponent. “No ma’am,” McCain had said, grabbing the microphone away from his supporter, who was a woman advanced in years. “[Obama’s] a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

John McCain confronts a supporter who claimed Obama is an “Arab” at a Minnesota rally during the 2008 US presidential campaign. via Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

When I attended the rally, I was in the middle of drafting a report on this exchange, noting that one of those fundamental differences wasn’t immigration policy. But though there was little difference between the main parties’ policies on immigration at the time, there was little doubt that racism targeted at the Latin American community would come from the far right, not the far left. Both parties advocated strongly for legal immigration and promised to reduce illegal immigration through various systematic reforms. The Latino community had thrived in this area for over 100 years, and it made little difference to us urban multiculturalists whether someone was “documented” or not. But to those from the more rural and deprived areas of the state, such immigrants were “stealing” their jobs and enjoying the life they could not. It often seemed like “legal” and “illegal” was the same to them, too.

Even so, immigrants were far from being the primary scapegoat – in 2008, that was the Arab world, and Islam.

Before McCain arrived, a charismatic preacher rose to lead the gathering in prayer. After praying for John McCain, President Bush, and other civic leaders (all Republicans, I noted), he continued, eyes closed and hands clasped, to pray “…against those who don’t like us very much. Maybe they worship Allah, or some other God.”

Sirens went off in my young Catholic brain. Is not Allah, the Arabic word for the one true God, my God also? And is the implication somehow that our enemy in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was Islam? And in any case, why should one ever “pray against” another?

The preacher left the stage to uncomfortable, scattered applause, though a couple loud, echoing cheers went up in one corner of the auditorium where we were gathered.

After the preacher, the national anthem was sung, and McCain was supposed to follow closely, but he was late. Very late. Roughly forty minutes passed, during which vaulting orchestral theme music drowned out any speculation. We were reassured twice by the organizers that he was on his way. Three times the music ran to its end and began anew.

In the end, he did come, and his large blue battle bus – the “Straight Talk Express” – pulled into the auditorium, from which exited a diminutive, smiling figure. His war injuries had left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders, but he raised them as high as he could, waving outward with both hands.

He gave his stump speech with passion and elegance, thumping the podium. He had a teleprompter, but he seemed to have most of the speech memorized.

At one point, the script was broken. In the very middle of the audience, a protester climbed onto the shoulders of another, holding up a sign and shouting some slogan. I couldn’t quite read the sign from where I was, nor could I hear her voice clearly. Much later, I was told that it read “War Is Over!”, an apparent protest at McCain’s hawkish attitude towards North Korea and Iran, and the continuing conflict in Iraq.

Security began to escort the protesters out, to the jeers of the crowd. McCain begged them to stay. “Give them a mic!” he said. “Let’s have a debate! Americans don’t want to see us shouting at each other.” But, perhaps for their own safety as much as anything else, they were gently but quickly whisked out of the auditorium and away from sight.

I marvelled at the Senator, who seemed more eager to entertain the potentially controversial opinions of a protester than those of his own supporters a few days before. Why? Why were the strong opinions of the left more palatable to him than the strong opinions of the right? Why had he snatched a microphone from the old woman in Minnesota, while trying to give one to the young woman in Iowa? I hadn’t seen the protester’s sign, but I found myself guessing that it was something to do with socialism, or equality. They were young. Perhaps they were LGBT activists celebrating Iowa’s recent court ruling in favour of gay marriage. Or perhaps they were advocating for a higher minimum wage – Iowa’s had been a paltry $5.15/hr, which the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress had recently raised to $7.25.

Perhaps these things, I thought, are less to be feared than the politics of hate.

The delay in McCain’s arrival also mystified me. Whether his team had been discussing the situation of following on from the preacher, or whether he was detained for another reason, I do not know. I sent an e-mail inquiry to the campaign, but received no reply. In the end I chose not to mention the preacher in my report, concentrating instead on the speech and McCain’s attempt at a civil exchange of ideas with the protesters.

Did John McCain make me a liberal? Perhaps; or at least, he was one among many. In any case, even where we parted ways on policy issues, I remained a great admirer of his style, tenacity, and his ability to compromise even when  all others had failed.

Indeed, Senator McCain never picked easy battles. A self-cast “maverick”, his life was a series of extreme fortunes and extreme misfortunes, which have been covered extensively in print over the past 12 hours. It was a pity that his final battle was not one of his choosing. “Give it hell”, advised Obama on his diagnosis, and he did. In the middle of that battle, his vote to preserve the Affordable Health Care Act, the keystone legacy of Obama’s tenure, has been the most memorable moment of the 115th Congress. When it came to voting on principle, nothing would stop him – not a brain tumour, nor the radical elements of his own party.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Vice President Joe Biden. Biden served alongside McCain in the US Senate for much of his career. His son, Beau, died of a similar brain cancer in 2015.  “John McCain’s life is proof that some truths are timeless. Character. Courage. Integrity. Honor. A life lived embodying those truths casts a long, long shadow.”