Why does everyone admire John McCain? Because he was a leader who knew how to argue.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP

I have been struck by the overwhelmingly positive and admiring comments about John McCain from people at all points on the political spectrum, including not just Republicans but the likes of Bernie Sanders, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.There’s a lesson here in leadership for today’s politicians, on how to argue on principle.

You may tell me that McCain’s ordeal in Vietnam as a prisoner-of-war is the reason we admire him. His experience of torture, and his incredible choice to stay in the North Vietnamese prison camp until his fellow prisoners had been released, are heroic. But there are plenty of other war heroes who don’t get this level of broad acclaim when they die.

Based on what I’m reading, the eulogies for John McCain focus on how he behaved in politics, which was in a way that was profoundly human and open to working with others, including political opponents, to get things done. Take the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, perhaps the last bipartisan restriction on campaign financing that we’ll ever see, enacted through an alliance with the Democrat Russ Feingold. As Feingold wrote in The New York Times:

Of course we did not always see eye-to-eye, even on our own bill. There was one period when John and I knew we had to scale back our more ambitious campaign-finance legislation to attract support. We had a tense and difficult conversation about what should be cut, and it didn’t end well. I spent the evening afterward wondering whether we might go separate ways, even though, despite our ideological differences, we had reached the same conclusion: that the system by which members of Congress were being elected was corrupt.

Despite the challenges, McCain-Feingold lurched across the finish line and became law. And McCain and Feingold remained friends.

I keep reading stories about how McCain would argue, challenge, and ultimately work with his opponents and those in media who disagreed with him.

From Ted Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, in the Boston Globe:

Indeed, I recall a moment on the floor of the US Senate in the early 1990s when John and Ted found themselves on opposite sides of an issue. Ted had just been recognized to speak when McCain burst out of the Republican cloakroom and charged onto the floor. Teddy and John then got into a tense, but private, verbal exchange off the floor.

In an odd way, it was perhaps that heat that began a thaw in their relationship. As those two old bulls walked off the Senate floor, they patted each other on the back and started to laugh. “That was really something,” one of them said. “Pretty good,” the other retorted. In that moment, all tension dissipated, and the seeds of a friendship were sown.

And this, from the same op-ed:

In one memorable moment during an Armed Services Committee hearing on torture, Ted’s allotted time was up before he was able to complete his questioning of a witness. John was up next and, seamlessly, it seemed, took Ted’s notes and completed the questioning. At that moment, the nation saw how much more was possible when senators worked together, keeping the nation’s interests in mind without worrying about who got the credit.

From Al Gore:

I always admired and respected John from the other side of the aisle, because he thrived under pressure, and would work to find common ground, no matter how hard. . . . I have no doubt that the Maverick’s legacy will forever be an important model of leadership and civil discourse.

Here’s what Walt Mossberg wrote on Facebook:

I remember well the big onstage 2007 interview Kara Swisher & I had with Senator John McCain. He was feisty and afterwards he privately thanked me for the fierce argument we had over the Iraq War. Said he appreciated vigorous debate.

And, amazingly, here’s what former Colonel Tran Trung Duyet, who was commander of the prison where McCain was held, said:

‘‘At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance,’’ he told the newspaper Vietnam News, published by the official Vietnam News Agency.

“Later on when he became a US senator, he and Senator John Kerry greatly contributed to promote Vietnam-US relations so I was very fond of him,’’ Vietnam News quoted Duyet as saying Sunday.

McCain recognized that relationships were more important that positions, and that arguing meant frank talk about those positions, not demonizing the opponents. This is why so many are citing his reaction to set the record straight when in a town-hall meeting, a woman asking a question said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab.” McCain responded “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” (You can argue that “Arab” and “family man” are not opposites, but the fact remains that McCain took that moment to sincerely praise the character of his opponent, an action we rarely see in politics these days.)

McCain made many decisions that I disagree with, perhaps the stupidest of which was choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election. But it’s clear from these accounts that in death, as in life, he gained admiration from nearly everyone who disagreed with him. (The notable exception, of course, is Donald Trump, a man who has made demonizing and belittling his political enemies into a blood sport.)

Take a moment and learn something from this.

If you want to get anything done, in politics, in business, or in life, you are going to have to work with people who disagree with you.

You can take the path of attempting to destroy those people. You might even enjoy that. But sooner or later, you are going to need their help. Those relationships you are crushing will be gone, and you’ll fail.

Or, you can argue on principle, on the facts, with logic, without calling your adversaries names.

You could find areas of common interest and pursue progress in those areas, as John McCain did. Through that effort, you might find better solutions than you would have found if you stuck to your entrenched position.

I live in the Massachusetts, where the Republican governor and the Democratic legislators must do this. Things are going well here. It’s a pretty good bet that after the 2018 election, we will still have a Republican governor and Democratic legislators, and we will continue to work for solutions that require striving for a higher ideal of how to serve the people of our commonwealth.

When you vote in 2018, vote for people like this, not people who belittle and tear each other down. And reach out to those with whom you disagree, misguided souls that they may be. The country needs to heal.

It’s either that, or attempt to slit each other’s throats as the nation sinks into irrelevance. John McCain would hate that. So would I.

2 responses to “Why does everyone admire John McCain? Because he was a leader who knew how to argue.

  1. Excellent piece – thanks Josh. All of the praise for McCain is deserved, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity to draw a stark contrast to the 45th. Service and graciousness are concepts that appear to be unknown to him.

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