John McCain was in town two years ago to receive the Truman Good Neighbor Award.
He had given his speech. I had my notes, and I had photos. But at the last minute I figured I’d do my best to get one more photo, just to be safe.
I did that, and now it was the two of us, just chatting for a minute.
Sir, I have to ask you about something that’s bugged me for months. After Donald Trump insulted you by dismissing the idea that you’re a war hero and that “I like people that weren’t captured,” did he ever reach out to you to say something – to apologize?
No, he didn’t, McCain said, but that’s all right. I’m in the arena. I can take it. It’s the other guys – America’s other POWs – who he also insulted. They didn’t ask for this.
“In the arena.” He was right. As they say, politics ain’t beanbag. It’s nothing new to call your opponent all sorts of names and insinuate all sorts of things. If you don’t have a tough skin, this isn’t for you.
That said, McCain could be a tough partisan fighter – nothing wrong with that – who could still cut a deal to get things done and move the country forward. We say that’s what we send them to do in Washington, and then we scream at them when they actually do it.
McCain, who died over the weekend, had his share of missteps and blunders. Some were doozies. He could be refreshingly candid about that.
But the main thing is that he saw himself as being committed to something far larger than himself – a country, a people and, as he saw it, progress.
Here’s an occupational hazard that causes a person to dread gatherings of friends and family. OK, Mr. Journalist, I read the papers, but what’s really going on? Isn’t so-and-so really a crook? Why can’t those people get anything done?
Well, for starters, they are a reflection of us, and We the People after all do elect them. My standard answer – an honest answer and the best I can come up with – is that most of the time when you talk to elected officials one on one, you find them to be bright, well-informed and well-intentioned. But we send them off to systems – Washington, Jefferson City, elsewhere – that are deeply compromised and deeply dysfunctional. Sometimes they make a difference. Sometimes they become part of the problem. Sometimes they’re just along for the ride.
But I am reconsidering that view. It seems that the virtues of learning the ropes, listening before talking and deference to learned experience – you know, history – have faded.
Instead of the generosity of spirit needed for success in public life, we get more people who think they’ve been elected to pick a fight. Confrontation in politics is OK, but it shouldn’t be your opening bid. The arena is rough enough already. I think, in the end, McCain embodied that generosity of spirit.
Here’s another one that’s faded, an idea that our best leaders have always understood. Politics can and should be a means of making people’s lives better. McCain got that too,
It’s really pretty simple. Service above self. Country before party. We need more of that.
– Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at 816-350-6365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.