What You Probably Don’t Know About John McCain

Sometime in the next few days, longtime Arizona Senator John McCain will say the last of his good-byes to his family, friends, and fellow Americans. As that sad moment comes and goes, we’ll be hearing many more praises and critiques of his life and career. I’d just like to mention two significant things about him that might get overlooked in all the news coverage. Ironically, they should be among the parts of his life that get the most mention, because they illuminate qualities that most of us will want in our next president, particularly in contrast with our current one.

Now, I’ve never met nor communicated with McCain, but I’ve followed his political service closely ever since I saw him as a frequent guest on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour 30 years ago. He’s always fascinated me, partly because of his life story, and partly because I’m just a political science geek. But I’ve also been drawn to McCain because I, like him, have often been too conservative for some of my liberal friends and too liberal for some of my conservative friends.

One of the stories I’d like to share has to do with a remarkable conversation he had at Southern California’s huge Saddleback Church with Pastor Rick Warren prior to the 2008 election. McCain had clinched the GOP presidential nomination, and Senator Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic one. Pastor Warren invited both of them to chat with him, one at a time and in front of a live audience, discussing the exact same questions.

A brief handshake in between Rick Warren’s separate interviews of the candidates. (Photo: Orange County Register)

One of the toughest questions Pastor Warren asked both of them was this: What’s been your greatest moral failure?

I wouldn’t blame either candidate for trying to skirt the question. But McCain’s answer was very direct:

My greatest moral failing — and I have been a very imperfect person — is the failure of my first marriage. It’s my greatest moral failure.

It’s one of the episodes of McCain’s life that is rarely talked about. Many people know about his five-and-a-half years experiencing nearly unimaginable torture in a North Vietnamese prison, with two of those years spent in solitary confinement. It’s fairly common knowledge that he refused early release in order to not abandon his fellow prisoners of war. But within just seven years of his return, he left his first wife Carol, who had raised their three young kids during his captivity, in order to marry his current wife Cindy.

McCain with his first wife Carol, shortly after his return from Vietnam. (Photo: USA Today)

McCain has said on other occasions that the fault for his first marriage’s dissolution was entirely his. What he did to his first wife and their three young children was indeed horrible, and he doesn’t get honor points or anything for admitting it. The pain they went through, as they describe in the recent HBO documentary about McCain’s life, was immense.

Yet I do want my elected officials to own up to mistakes, whether personal or political. I want to know that if they screw up, then they’ll learn, grow, and do something different next time.

Our current president, according to numerous accounts, never admits that he’s wrong. That’s one of the things that most frightens me about him; he acts as if he’s always right, and the fault is always someone else’s. In leadership, that’s a fatal flaw that typically results in catastrophe for the entire organization.

It’s a world away from President Harry S Truman, famous for the sign he kept on his desk: The Buck Stops Here.

Buck Stops Here
President Truman’s philosophy of taking responsibility. (Photo: Truman Library)

Perhaps McCain’s greatest failure as a public servant came in the late 1980s, when he was labeled one of the Keating Five – five senators accused of corruption in a major Savings and Loan scandal. Specifically, they were alleged to have influenced the government investigation into a big campaign donor, Charles Keating, who had defrauded thousands of investors in the failed Savings and Loan that he ran. Along with Senator John Glenn, McCain was cleared of the charges by the Senate Ethics Committee, but he learned a big lesson from his mistake in attending two of the meetings with the other four senators. Big money corrupted politics, and it almost destroyed his career.

From there, McCain would go on to push hard for campaign finance reform. His efforts resulted in the McCain-Feingold reforms, signed during the first term of a reluctant President George W. Bush, who in the 2000 campaign raised more money than any previous candidate in the history of the U.S. McCain-Feingold held the promise of reducing the outsized influence money had in American politics, but its key provisions were struck down in the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

McCain Feingold
Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. (Photo: NBC News)

In these examples of failure, personal and political, McCain demonstrated a fundamental characteristic of good leaders – they’re willing to admit it when they blow it in a big way, and they learn from that. Our current president appears incapable of doing so; our next president must do so.

Another oft-forgotten aspect of McCain’s life stands in contrast to our current president’s signature issue: keeping foreigners, especially those with brown skin, out of the United States.

Once upon a time, in the mid-aughts, President George W. Bush was pushing humane immigration reform, including guest permits for otherwise undocumented workers. It was an issue that Bush knew well, given his time as governor of Texas, where 49 percent of Hispanic voters supported his gubernatorial re-election in 1998.

Bush McCain
McCain and former President George W. Bush greet each other at the 2009 funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died of the same kind of cancer with which McCain suffers. Once bitter enemies, McCain and Bush became strong allies on several major issues, including immigration. (Photo: Zimbio) 

One of the congressional leaders attempting to shepherd the immigration legislation through the Senate was McCain, who was outspoken on the need for humane reform. Yet conservative Republicans attacked the legislation, and the bill died when Bush and McCain weren’t able to win support from enough centrist Republicans and Democrats.

Immigration reform hasn’t come close to happening ever since.

McCain didn’t just support immigration politically; he also did it in a very personal way. In 1991, Cindy McCain went on one of her many trips bringing medical volunteers to impoverished areas of the world. On this mission, her team assisted with one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages in Bangladesh. The nuns there asked Cindy to help two girls in particular; one with a cleft palate and another that needed heart surgery. She arrived back in the U.S. with the two Bangladeshi orphans and with plans for them to get the surgical help they needed.

One of them soon became the McCains’ daughter Bridget. The other was adopted by one of McCain’s assistants.

McCain didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Bangladesh falls into our current president’s category of “shithole countries.”

In admitting and learning from his errors, and in putting his money where his mouth is on immigration, McCain reminds us of the kind of person most of us want in the Oval Office after we’re finally freed from our current president’s reign of terror.

Senator McCain, thank you for the enormous good you have done for this country, yours and mine. You can be sure that your legacy will live on with my family, as I continue to tell my daughters stories of how you served us to the end. Godspeed.