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Soldier, senator, gentleman - André P. DeBattista

In the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, emotions were running high. In one meeting, a visibly distraught woman was given the floor: “I do not believe him. I cannot trust Obama. I’ve read about him. He’s an Arab.”

She couldn’t finish the point she was trying to make. An elderly gentleman shook his head vigorously and cut her short. “No Ma’am,” he said, “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That is what this campaign is all about.”

The person who set the record straight was John McCain, the nominee of the Republican Party and Barack Obama’s opponent in the race to the White House. After having lived through the Trump/Clinton contest, we can safely say that the events of 10 years ago feel like a lifetime away.

A cursory look at some of the highlights of the 2008 campaign reveal that McCain would frequently make similar points – Obama was a fundamentally decent and honourable man. Disagreements on matters of policy and principle do not impinge on the other person’s humanity or decency. McCain’s ability to see the good in others was borne out of his sense of decency and honour.

The son and the grandson of Navy Admirals, John McCain was told from a young age that “there is no greater thing than to die for the country and principles that you believe in”. In the era of survey politics and cheap politicking, such sentiments sound lofty and phoney. They aren’t. For McCain, they were his guiding principles.

Born into a distinguished naval family, McCain’s life was shaped by the Navy. In 1958, he graduated from the United States Naval Academy. At the outbreak of the Vietnam War, he requested a combat assignment.

While flying over Hanoi, his aircraft was shot down. His captors refused to treat him and he never recovered from some of his injuries. In his book Faith of my Fathers, McCain writes about his time in Vietnam. Once they discovered that his father was a high-ranking admiral, they subjected him to all kinds of inhumane torture. McCain was released after five years of captivity.

The years of torment in Vietnam left him in need of medical attention and physiotherapy. In 1977, he was assigned to the US Senate as a liaison officer for the Navy. In 1982, he was elected to Congress. He was elected to the Senate in 1987, taking over from the great Arizona senator and presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. During his political career, he gained a reputation for being a maverick.

He visited Vietnam and, despite his suffering under the hands of the murderous socialist regime, he advocated for a resumption of relations. He struck alliances and friendships with the most unlikely of people. He argued against the policies of Senator Ted Kennedy. However, he was also willing to work and co-sponsor bills with him if the need arose.

When he won the nomination to be the Republican Party’s nominee for the Presidency of the United States in 2008, he toyed with the idea of asking Senator Joe Lieberman to be his vice-presidential candidate. Lieberman, an independent Democrat, had already run as such in Al Gore’s failed bid.

The choice instead fell on the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Displaying utmost courtesy and generosity, McCain tried his best to shield Palin from some of the most hurtful criticism directed towards her young family.

During this campaign, McCain recognised the significant historical development of having the first African-American candidate for the White House. Although on opposing sides, he celebrated this momentous aspect of American history.

McCain’s principles and instincts were correct. On security issues and international relations, he was far more competent than his opponent. His warnings and his observations were right.

I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West, and I believe we must always, always stand up for it – John McCain

After losing the presidential election, he served in the Senate until he was diagnosed with a rare form of tumour. He died a day after his family announced that he would discontinue his treatment.

The last years were marked by a new fight against President Donald Trump. According to Trump, McCain is not a real hero because real heroes are not captured. Trump fails to understand a lesson which McCain so eloquently understood: “Courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity for action despite our fears.”

McCain and Trump couldn’t have been more different. The New Yorker once described McCain as a “leader” who adopts a “take me or leave me” position. He did not try to “stir the crowd’s darker passions or its higher aspirations”. Rather, he stated his position in a precise manner and left the choice to the electorate.

With his death, we do not just mourn his loss but also the politics that died with him. He personified the politics of decency, honour and principle.

McCain taught us that freedom is worth fighting for and that democracy is a universal value which should be championed.

He could turn the most unlikely alliances into real lasting friendships. He showed that dialogue between two opposing positions is possible. When compromise is not reasonable – and some principles should never be subject to compromise – the two sides can still take part in a civil and open debate without being hostile to one another.

He displayed a side to politics which is often forgotten – that one can hold very firm positions while still being decent and honourable to one’s opponent. If there was ever a lesson that needed to be learnt in this era, it is precisely this.

McCain is also a testament to the fact that patriotism need not run counter to internationalism; one can still be proud of one’s country without resorting to isolationism, xenophobia and nativism.

A leitmotif running through his life of  service was that “the West is worth fighting for”. He acknowledged there were times when the “temptation to despair is greatest”. He wrote in his last memoir, “I refuse to accept the end of the West. I refuse to accept the demise of our world order. I refuse to accept that our greatest triumphs cannot once again spring from our moments of greatest peril, as they have so many times before. I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries. I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West, and I believe we must always, always stand up for it – for if we do not, who will?”

We can only hope that many will take on the fight of this great gentleman, senator and fighter. He was a good and faithful servant.

Mark Anthony Falzon will not be appearing this week.

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