Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
John McCain’s “No, ma’am” clip from the 2008 presidential campaign has been replayed countless times since his death Saturday, and with good reason.
It’s a testament to the quality of McCain’s character and the strength of his principles, both of which are shamefully lacking in his party today.
The moment came during a town hall meeting in October, when a woman told McCain that she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was “an Arab.”
“No ma’am,” McCain said, taking the microphone from the woman. “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. He’s not.”
That wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. But despite being booed, McCain stood his ground and refused to play into the falsehood of Obama not being a U.S. citizen. He also was making a statement about the importance of focusing on policy and facts, not conspiracies and partisan attacks, to establish a civil dialogue and maintain a healthy democracy.
Ten years later, with the GOP in grave danger of becoming the party of Donald Trump, America more than ever needs champions of those values.
Trump is all too eager to launch personal attacks, make false allegations, play to tribal instincts and otherwise lower the bar of American politics, as he demonstrated yet again with his petty response to McCain’s death.
In raising the White House flag Monday afternoon — it normally stays down through the day of interment — Trump drew criticism from veterans groups and raised the flag again. Also Monday, he folded his arms and pouted when given numerous opportunities to comment about McCain. Eventually, he issued a four-paragraph statement.
This is not a surprise, of course. McCain was a rare Republican with the strength of character to hold Trump accountable, so Trump treated him the same as others who fail to show him unwavering loyalty — he attacked him.
It was another shameful moment in a long, long line of them for Trump, whose childishness stood in stark contrast to the outpouring of respect and admiration that came from McCain’s colleagues.
Certainly, McCain deserved praise. He distinguished himself with his passionate opposition to torture, his dramatic thumbs-down vote on Obamacare repeal and the bipartisan work he did with Democrat Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform to get big and dark money out of politics, to name a few of the defining elements of his legacy.
Then, of course, there was McCain’s defense of Obama and his commitment to the higher ideals of campaigning and public discourse.
He was far from perfect, as he would acknowledge. His reputation was tarnished in the Keating Five scandal, and he stumbled badly on his principles when he flip-flopped on immigration and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays serving openly. McCain also committed a serious judgment error in not following his instincts and instead allowing a clearly unqualified Sarah Palin to be added to the ticket in 2008. Palin lowered the bar in politics, helping lead to the reality-show version that gave rise to Trump.
But McCain had the decency to admit when he was wrong, and the character to hold himself accountable.
“The Tao of John McCain was unlike that of any other politician I’ve ever covered,” veteran politics editor Todd S. Purdum wrote in The Atlantic. “Ed Koch was as colorful, Mario Cuomo as smart, George W. Bush as human. But no one combined McCain’s unflinching mix of bracing candor, impossibly high standards, and rueful self-recrimination when he (inevitably) failed to live up to the ideals he outlined for himself.”
McCain will be missed, especially as Americans deal with a president who disdains the ideals that McCain embodied.
His death leaves our neighbors in Arizona with a decision to make — to honor McCain’s service and memory or to support Trump’s pettiness toward an American hero.