I met freshman Congressman John McCain in early 1983. I was the legislative director of AIPAC and anxious to learn whether his views on Israel and the Middle East were as favorable as I’d been led to believe by our members in Arizona’s influential and growing Jewish community.
In his second term he joined the Foreign Affairs Committee, where my boss for the previous decade, Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal of New York, had been a senior member.
McCain was one of the early Republicans in the House (Jack Kemp was the foremost) to appreciate the strategic importance of America’s alliance with Israel and enlist votes on his side of the aisle, where many opposed all foreign aid. A frequent visitor to Israel, he genuinely understood the issues and could articulate and sell them, something he built on in the Senate.
McCain has been said to loathe lobbyists but he always treated me and my colleagues well and was always accessible and interested, which I presume is because I represented a cause he shared. That only got better after he went to the Senate in 1987, succeeding Barry Goldwater, who was not a consistent supporter of Israel, despite his ancestry.
He consistently worked across the aisle, something rare in today’s polarized Senate. Several Jewish senators, past and present, were among his close Democratic allies, including Chuck Schumer, Al Franken, Russ Feingold and Joe Lieberman.
Notably he and Feingold collaborated on landmark campaign finance reform legislation. He was alarmed by the corrosive and corruptive influence of money in politics and sought to change it, but ran into stiff opposition from fellow Republicans.
He has been one of the most traveled senators, known for going to hot spots, not tourist sites, and for doing his homework, mastering the issues. His favorite traveling companions have been Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Lieberman (Democrat/Independent-Connecticut); they were known as the Three Amigos.
With McCain chairing the Armed Services Committee and Graham heading the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, they were two of the most important and knowledgeable players in the Senate regarding the US-Israel strategic relationship. That was especially critical when it came to helping develop Israel’s anti-missile defense system.
McCain had wanted to pick Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who had run in 2000 as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, to be his running mate in 2008 but instead chose the unqualified and unprepared Trumpian precursor Sarah Palin. That was a low point in his political career, and something he has called “another mistake that I made.”
Lieberman was too liberal on domestic social issues for the GOP. He was criticized by conservatives for even considering a liberal Democrat, and after that election the Arizonan moved farther to the Right in the face of a 2010 primary challenge from the more conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. McCain even went so far as to deny he was ever a maverick, rejecting the appellation that helped shape his career and popularity.
Lieberman did endorse his Arizona colleague over his Democratic colleague from Illinois, Barack Obama.
Much is being written these days by and about McCain as he battles brain cancer at his home near Sedona, Arizona. He has a new book, The Restless Wave, coming out this month.
His stature, already great, has been enhanced by the man who shouldn’t be president.
The finest moment in McCain’s public career, in my view, came during his presidential campaign, on August 12, 2008, at a Town Hall meeting when a supporter told him, “I can’t trust Obama... he’s an Arab.” McCain shook his head and, taking the microphone, said, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Taken alone it was a historic moment. But when Donald Trump faced a similar situation, his response only enhanced McCain’s stature and further diminished his own.
It was September 17, 2015, at a campaign rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, when a man told candidate Trump, “You know our current president is [Muslim]. You know he’s not even American. When can we get rid of them?”
It was a moment that defines character. Trump grinned and chuckled, “We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.” Two days later he accused Obama of “waging a war against Christians in this country.”
What else could be expected from a prominent birther who spent years spreading lies about Obama’s faith and citizenship?
McCain’s battle against cancer highlights another contrast between the two men. McCain has been consistently honest and open about his heath, including all his war and torture wounds, while Trump dictates an absurd letter of lies for his doctor to sign, declaring him in “astonishing excellent” condition. The last doctor to give Trump such a glowing report was rewarded with a cabinet appointment.
When McCain announced his opposition to Trump’s choice to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, because she would not condemn the use of torture, a White House aide, Kelly Sadler, said it didn’t matter “because he’s dying anyway.” No apologies from the White House, only a condemnation of the person who leaked the story.
That shouldn’t be surprising. It is consistent with the advice of Trump’s mentor, the notorious mob lawyer and Joe McCarthy protégé, Roy Cohn: “Never apologize, never back down, never admit you were wrong.”
This episode has prompted many people lately to quote an ancient proverb: “A fish rots from the head down.”
Word out of Sedona is that Obama will be delivering a eulogy at McCain’s funeral; Trump was told not to attend.
There’s a difference between a genuine war hero and a cowardly draft dodger who denigrated McCain’s five-and-a-half years of torture as a POW when he declared, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
They are opposites when it comes to putting the national interest ahead of personal interest. One is known as a straight talker, the other as a congenital liar.
It’s menschlichkeit. John McCain has it. Donald Trump doesn’t.