John McCain leaves behind a dangerously divided US

Arizona senator exemplified bipartisanship now in decline

Contrary to popular accounts, Ted Kennedy and John McCain were not always friends. In fact, before they got to know each other they were deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards each other.

But a funny thing happened. They had an argument, just out of public view off the US Senate floor. A very heated argument. Neither one gave an inch. But they heard each other out. And in that moment, as they came at an issue from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they came to realise they were very much alike: passionate about what they believed, fierce advocates for their position, yet grudgingly respectful of those who fight their own corner with conviction, sharing the view that there is far more that unites Americans than divides them.

With John McCain’s passing, nine years to the day after his great friend Ted Kennedy died of the same unforgiving form of brain cancer, we are reminded that the sort of vitriolic, fact-free partisanship that passes for American politics these days doesn’t have to be that way.

It would be hard to name another American senator whose passing would inspire the scope and real emotion of bipartisan admiration that McCain’s death has.


Part of that is the man himself. McCain was a war hero, a patriot, a man of honour and integrity.

But part of it is the state of American politics today, exemplified by the way Donald Trump rose to power and how he has exercised that power as president.

When Trump denigrated McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, dismissing McCain by saying he preferred members of the US military who didn’t get captured, there was a national intake of breath and an initial belief that Trump had mortally wounded his candidacy. His remarks were beneath the dignity of anyone who would run for president.

But it turned out to be a blip on a screen that would become littered with insults and denigrations of individuals and whole groups of people, from Mexicans, to the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in battle, to a disabled journalist.

Trump’s election confirmed many things, nothing more depressing than the fact that the nobility of showing respect to those holding different political opinions was considered passé, if not a personal weakness.

The idea that someone who so conspicuously avoided military service could openly insult a war hero and see no political consequences was proof that politics had changed, changed, as a poet might note, utterly.

I believe that, 100 years from now, historians will recall that McCain’s greatest moment as a politician and as a human being took place in 2008, when he was the Republican nominee for president. A supporter at one of his rallies took a microphone and said that she didn’t trust the Democrat nominee, Barack Obama, because he was an Arab. The woman had, like many Republican voters, accepted the lie that Obama was a stealth Muslim.

McCain politely but firmly interrupted the woman, took the microphone from her, shaking his head.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

Trump, meanwhile, was one of the main forces fuelling the racist-inspired lie that Obama was a Muslim born in Africa. Rather than stain him, it helped get him elected.

McCain’s decency in the face of naked ignorance and prejudice was not an isolated incident. Last year, when Trump tried to suggest there was a moral equivalency between the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville and those who protested against them, including a woman who was killed by one of the racists, McCain rose in righteous indignation.

“White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” he said. “As we mourn the tragedy that has occurred in Charlottesville, American patriots of all colours and creeds must come together to defy those who raise the flag of hatred and bigotry.”

In doing so, McCain openly and proudly defied his president, the leader of his party. It was a characteristic he shared with Ted Kennedy, That is why any description of McCain includes the word maverick. It is an honorific, befitting an honourable man.

Gerard Doherty, a lawyer and political adviser to the Kennedy brothers, is the author of They Were My Friends – Jack, Bob and Ted: My Life in and out of Politics. He will be speaking at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross on September 6th