John McCain is a po­lit­i­cal leader not of our time

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION - DANA MILBANK Colum­nist Fol­low Dana Milbank on Twit­ter, @Milbank. E-mail: danamil­bank@wash­post.com. Copy­right, Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

WASH­ING­TON — At long last, have they left no sense of de­cency? White House of­fi­cial Kelly Sadler, dur­ing a meet­ing Thurs­day, had this to say about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for op­pos­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s CIA nom­i­nee over her fail­ure to con­demn tor­ture: “It doesn’t mat­ter, he’s dy­ing any­way.”

Also Thurs­day, on Fox Busi­ness Net­work, re­tired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McIn­er­ney had this to say about the tor­ture of McCain, who was shot down over Hanoi with griev­ous wounds, but re­fused re­lease to deny his cap­tors a pro­pa­ganda vic­tory: Tor­ture “worked on John. That’s why they call him ‘Song­bird John.’”

And three days ear­lier, Sen. Or­rin G. Hatch, R-Utah, a Trump cheer­leader, de­clared the ter­mi­nally ill McCain “ridicu­lous” to pre­fer that Trump, who has be­lit­tled McCain and his hero­ism, not at­tend his funeral.

Hatch, Sadler, and the host of the Fox Busi­ness show have all apol­o­gized, as they should. But how did we let par­ti­san­ship take us to this ugly place?

McCain is still with us, and this is no obit­u­ary. But as Trump loy­al­ists be­smirch this good man, I thought I would put in writ­ing what I have of­ten thought over the years: John McCain is the sin­gle great­est po­lit­i­cal leader of our time. He is, in a way, not of our time, for his creed — coun­try be­fore self — is un­fa­mil­iar to many who serve in of­fice and ut­terly for­eign to the man in charge.

Only once dur­ing the nearly quar­ter of a cen­tury I’ve been cov­er­ing pol­i­tics did I think I could work for a politi­cian, and that politi­cian was McCain. I first got to know him in early 1999, when there were just a few of us driv­ing around New Hamp­shire with him in an SUV, be­fore the “Straight Talk Ex­press” rolled. Had he beaten Ge­orge W. Bush — he surely would have de­feated Al Gore — and had he been pres­i­dent on Sept. 11, 2001, I know he would have done great things with the na­tional unity Bush ul­ti­mately squan­dered.

I’ve had a closer re­la­tion­ship with McCain than with other politi­cians. I re­mem­ber fly­ing with him and Cindy McCain to Phoenix dur­ing the 2000 cam­paign, talk­ing about sports, mu­sic, a war buddy — and the is­sue that de­fined him: re­mov­ing the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of money from pol­i­tics. That’s why so many liked him even if they dis­agreed on the is­sues: With McCain, ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be on the level.

I be­lieved, per­haps naively, that in the free mar­ket­place of ideas, un­cor­rupted by spe­cial in­ter­ests, we would usu­ally ar­rive at a sen­si­ble con­sen­sus. A gen­er­a­tion af­ter Sen. Eu­gene McCarthy, D-Minn., in­spired his “Clean for Gene “fol­low­ers, McCain in­spired me.

On my Bush-Gore elec­tion bal­lot, I wrote in McCain. When I saw him later in the Sen­ate, I’d greet him as “Mr. Pres­i­dent.”

He’d re­ply by call­ing me “Mr. Pulitzer.” I took pride in 2009, when McCain read aloud a col­umn of mine on the Sen­ate floor and called me “one of my fa­vorite colum­nists.” He re­gret­ted that a few months later, when I took him to task for mo­men­tar­ily shed­ding his “mav­er­ick” ways, and he tried to dis­avow me.

There have been many such mo­ments of dis­agree­ment and dis­ap­point­ment: when he put Sarah Palin on his ticket in 2008; when he took a hard-right turn in 2010 to fight off a pri­mary chal­lenge; and when an­other tough pri­mary in 2016 led him to go easy on Trump.

But the Mac al­ways came back, and never more force­fully than over the past 16 months. In his forth­com­ing book, he la­bels “un­pa­tri­otic” the “half-baked, spu­ri­ous na­tion­al­ism cooked up by peo­ple who would rather find scape­goats than solve prob­lems.” His sin­gle bravest mo­ment may have been ear­lier, though, when he an­gered sup­port­ers in 2008 by tak­ing the mi­cro­phone from a woman at a cam­paign rally who had called Barack Obama an “Arab.” Said he: “No, ma’am. He’s a de­cent fam­ily man, cit­i­zen, that I just hap­pen to have dis­agree­ments with.”

McCain has, in achieve­ment, equaled or sur­passed his men­tors and mod­els, Barry Gold­wa­ter and Mo Udall. For­mally launch­ing his 2008 cam­paign in Prescott, Ariz., where both men had roots, McCain in­voked the friend­ship of these ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­sites, who “taught me to be­lieve that we are Amer­i­cans first and par­ti­sans se­cond.”

I was with McCain when he re­turned to Prescott for his last stop of that cam­paign. Again in­vok­ing Udall and Gold­wa­ter, McCain re­told Udall’s joke about Ari­zona be­ing “the only state where moth­ers don’t tell their chil­dren they can grow up to be pres­i­dent.”

In Phoenix for a wed­ding last week­end, I made a pil­grim­age north, past the turnoff for Prescott and on to McCain’s beloved Se­dona. Driv­ing and walk­ing among its red-rock hills, I re­flected for hours on the man who had so of­ten spo­ken of that beau­ti­ful place, and who so of­ten had been my an­ti­dote to cyn­i­cism. As I write this, there are tears on my cheeks.

God­speed, John McCain. You were not to be pres­i­dent, but you are my hero.

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