Displays of Courage and Kindness: Reflections on a Maverick Politician

As we kick off the school year, I want to pause and take a moment to honor the legacy of United States Senator John McCain. I grew up in Arizona, and from my childhood to my adulthood, there were two senators from my state who influenced my thinking about leadership and what it means to be an American: Barry Goldwater and John McCain.

McCain followed the legacy of Goldwater, and few national commentators have picked up on some of the things they had in common. Among their commonalities were a fierce sense of individualism and a fearless commitment to recognizing and supporting individual rights. Both Goldwater and McCain represented the rugged individualism of the American West.

When I was a child in the 1970s, Arizona still had a frontier feel. Traveling around with my geologist father into the Southern Arizona desert as a young boy, I got to see and meet REAL cowboys. I spent time volunteering on Native American reservations, seeing the terrible legacy of the conquest of the Apaches, Navajo, and other groups. The Hispanic presence loomed large in my community, and the segregation between Anglos and Latinos was obvious. The racial history of the American West is as simple as it is complicated. The myth of “The West” makes it harder for us to understand (and I lack the space in this column to address this completely), but there was a mixing of culture in “The West” that created a region that is as integrated in some ways and as it is segregated in others.

An evolution of views on race relations

Neither of these men was a pioneering leader in civil rights, but their evolution on race relations and issues of inclusion are worth noting and contemplating. Ever since the founding of the nation, the pursuit of equality has been the challenge of our country. There is no major political leader of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century who did not have to think deeply and act on the issues of civil rights. McCain and Goldwater were no exception. Both rose to national prominence, representing their states as conservative Republicans, and both broke from their party in the latter parts of their lives. Both were presidential hopefuls—Goldwater in 1964 and McCain in 2008. Both made political decisions that compromised their values as they ran for the presidency.

For Goldwater, being a libertarian did not mean he did not believe in racial equality, but his actions are complicated, and his philosophy led him to believe that it was up to individuals to address moral wrongs rather than the federal government. His father was Jewish, and his mother was Episcopalian, and he undoubtedly ran into anti-Semitism growing up (he was born in Phoenix three years before Arizona became a state). He was a strong advocate of efforts to desegregate America’s Armed Forces. During WWII, Goldwater served as a pilot. After the war, he founded the Arizona Air National Guard and desegregated that unit two years before the rest of the military. During the Eisenhower administration, he was opposed to sending troops to enforce the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education decision, arguing it was up to states to abide by and enforce the Court’s ruling. As the Democrats became stronger advocates of civil rights in the early 1960s, the role of the government in addressing historical wrongs became more fiercely debated, and a “hands-off” approach by the federal government was welcomed by southern segregationists. Running for the presidency in 1964, Goldwater faced tough opposition from LBJ. Johnson’s team played on Goldwater’s extreme rhetoric to make him sound like a warmonger in Vietnam, while LBJ secretly planned for an expansion of the war. Without fully thinking through the implications, Goldwater led his party to welcome southern segregationists in the hopes of denting the Democrats’ “Solid South Strategy.” His decision not to speak forcefully for civil rights led to a political realignment in the South with white southerners turning, ironically, to the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln.

Yet, Goldwater went on to surprise many and, perhaps, paved the way for leaders like McCain. Goldwater stood up to Nixon in the darkest moments of the Watergate crisis, calling on Nixon to resign. In his 80s, after he retired from the Senate, Goldwater was a critic of the military’s ban on gays and lesbians. Injecting his libertarian values of believing the government should stay out of the personal lives of Americans, Goldwater wrote in a famous op-ed piece: “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.” After an Arizona Governor named Evan Mecham attempted to repeal the national designation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Goldwater reportedly called for him to resign and said that “kooks” were taking over his party. He had choice words for social conservatives like Jerry Falwell and struck out against party leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. Goldwater died in 1996.

A ‘maverick’ politician

The media has extensively covered McCain’s history since his death. Like Goldwater, he was a true maverick, (which was also his nickname) but he was, perhaps, a bit more nuanced and flexible than a rigid ideologue. As a presidential candidate running in the South Carolina primary, he compromised his values when asked about the Confederate flag, which at that time was the state flag. He gave a non-committal answer in the hopes of not alienating white voters. (This was during his first run at the presidency against George W. Bush). He later noted, “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win South Carolina. So, I chose to comprise my principles.” In 2000, he returned to South Carolina and apologized for not condemning the Confederate flag.

The impact of war

For both men, their courage was undoubtedly shaped by their experience in war. There are few words that could help a reader fully understand the torture and mental pain McCain experienced as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. With his father a high-profile admiral, McCain could have gotten better treatment and an early release. But, he stuck with his compatriots in the Hoa Lo Prison, resisting efforts to extract information. The film Return with Honor showed how terrible life was for POWs like John McCain and why so many consider him an American hero. But, this experience forged in him a resiliency and a willingness to take on injustice that is admirable. (I wonder if it also gave him more courage to recognize and admit when he was in error—a trait not common to politicians.)

Courage on display

Another moment in which he demonstrated his courage was when he stood up for his opponent Barack Obama when, at a town hall in Minnesota, a member of the crowd yelled racist attacks against Obama. As the Washington Post noted in an account of this engagement, the crowd booed. Rather than ignore the comments or brush them aside, he confronted the crowd: “I have to tell you: He is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as President of the United States.” Another spectator said that Obama was “an Arab.” McCain responded, “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.”

When he was defeated, McCain offered an extraordinary concession speech in which he noted the historic significance of the moment with great humility:

“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.”

He went on:

“A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”

Throughout his career and, particularly at the end, McCain stood up for the values that bring us all together as Americans. In his memoir he wrote:

“I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we’re more alike than different. We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals, forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold, that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all. Those rights inhabit the human heart. And from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.”

We talk about courage and kindness a lot at CA. These are things Senator John McCain modeled for everyone. He will be honored at a memorial service on Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral and interred Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.