John McCain, straight-talking mensch

Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) receives the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) receives the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I met freshman Congressman John McCain in early 1983. I was the legislative director of AIPAC and was 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 an inconsistent supporter of Israel, despite his ancestry.

McCain 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 U.S.-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 2008 running mate 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 a “mistake.”

McCain’s family announced Friday that he has decided to end treatment for his brain cancer and spend his remaining days with his family at his Arizona home. The statement said:

John has surpassed expectations for his survival. But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict. With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment.

There was an immediate outpouring of support and affection from across the country and across political lines.

But there was silence from the White House, though that may change, although anything from this president will be seen as phony. Just this month President Trump signed the $717 billion defense spending bill named for McCain but he never once mentioned the name of the dying senator.

McCain’s stature, already great, has been enhanced by the man who shouldn’t be president.

The senator’s finest moment in his 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. Trump’s reputation for tolerance has only gone downhill from there. McCain has been the conscience of the Republican Party, Trump its shame.

McCain’s battle against cancer highlights another contrast between the two men. McCain has been consistently honest and open about his health, 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.

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.

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.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.
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