Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
John McCain’s most courageous moment arguably did not come when he was near death as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He was then frail and feverish, with two broken arms, a broken leg, a shattered knee and bayonet wounds, yet still resisting his captors even though the consequence was more beatings.
Rather, his bravest moment may have come in the winter of 2007-08 as he sought the Republican nomination for president. In polls, two-thirds of GOP voters then supported torture, yet McCain led a battle against Vice President Dick Cheney on the issue and repeatedly denounced torture.
Waterboarding “is a horrible torture technique,” McCain told Iowa voters. “This is a terrible and odious practice.”
During a debate, McCain called extreme interrogation a “violation of existing law” as well as of the Geneva Convention. “I know how evil this enemy is,” McCain told an audience in Iowa, but he added, “This is really fundamentally about what kind of nation the United States of America is.”
This was the last thing voters wanted to hear. Even many Democrats were then reluctant to denounce torture, and news organizations often refrained from using the word “torture” to describe waterboarding. (The New York Times news pages did not adopt the word “torture” for such practices until 2014.)
Yet here was a Republican candidate back in 2007 repeatedly rebuking voters on waterboarding and standing up for the rights of suspected terrorists from al-Qaida. That’s what political courage and moral leadership look like, and why we can all learn something from McCain.
I disagreed with McCain on countless issues, from his support for the Iraq War and the 2017 tax bill to his 83 percent voting record in sync with President Donald Trump. He was a conservative and I’m a liberal, so he frequently infuriated me . But for all our disagreements, I deeply admired his guts, passion and determination to follow his moral code. His death leaves a great emptiness in Washington.
It is not that McCain was courageous at every moment. But even when he pandered, he was the world’s worst panderer — so obviously guilty and uncomfortable as he trolled for votes that he convinced nobody and was always penitent afterward.
As a presidential candidate in 2000 competing for votes in the South, he described the Confederate flag as “a symbol of heritage.” Later, he apologized and explained, “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles.”
In the courage-free zone known as Congress, McCain showed that principle and politics can mix at the highest levels. And if it wasn’t often enough, well, he would be the first to admit it. Characteristically, he described his pick of running mate Sarah Palin as “another mistake that I made.”
At his best, he was in a league of his own. Watch the video from the 2008 campaign of a rally where a man says “we’re scared of an Obama presidency.” McCain challenges the man, saying of Obama: “He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States.”
Then a woman speaks up and says she can’t trust Obama because he’s an Arab.
“No, ma’am,” McCain says. “He’s a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
There was, of course, another side to McCain, for he was a complex, contradictory figure. He betrayed his first wife, Carol, who had raised his three children by herself while he was in Vietnamese prisons. After returning home, while still living with Carol, he began pursuing his current wife, Cindy, who was young, beautiful and rich.
When he married Cindy, his children were angry (only at him; no one blamed Cindy) and none attended the wedding, but everyone forgave him soon enough. Not least because McCain was always his own severest critic. He was contrite, and he blamed himself rather than others.
That moral compass is what distinguished McCain, more than his war record, his wicked wit, his tireless travel schedule and his familiarity with far corners of the globe. (I happened to be in Moldova once when he visited. He had been in Moldova so often, even though voters could never have found it on a map, that he seemed to know it like Phoenix.) Above all, what set McCain apart was that he was guided not by a weather vane but by deeply felt principles.
Over many years, I saw McCain repeatedly speak up on issues where there was zero political return. Whether it was human trafficking victims, Syrians being bombed, Rohingya facing genocide or terrorism suspects facing torture, McCain did not follow voters but tried to lead them; he tried to do the right thing.
As much of the Republican Party in Congress was bullied into silent deference by Trump, even as members privately complained and rolled their eyes, McCain became particularly important for his periodic willingness to speak up. When Trump insulted Canada and antagonized Europe at the Group of 7 conference, McCain became the reassuring statesman who reminded the world that America is larger than its president. McCain tweeted: “To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.”
When McCain was undergoing physical therapy after returning from Vietnam, another patient was a 12-year-old girl, Ann Jones, who was dying from a brain tumor. McCain went out of his way to comfort Ann, arriving early to chat with her and dropping by her home to cheer her up.
After Ann died, her mother, Sylvia, lost touch with McCain, but years later she choked up as she told me how the war hero had taken the time to reach out to her daughter.
“I’m a Democrat, and I’m not trying to promote John McCain politically,” she told me. “But it tells you something about the character of this man. There was nothing in it for him to do this. It was only kindness.”
Washington is full of politicians who gauge which way the public is going and then try to rush out in front of it. McCain was different. Daring to be ornery to voters, he tackled impossible issues like Syria and campaign finance and immigration, and — somewhat inconsistently — worked ferociously hard to lead America. He was right some of the time, wrong some of the time, but he could be as heroically gutsy in American politics as in a North Vietnam prison, and that’s why so many of us now feel a great void in the political world.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.