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What John McCain Didn’t Do

Arizona senator refused to join attacks on Max Cleland and John Kerry

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., here in June 2010 with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whom he refused to attack during the 2004 presidential campaign when Kerry came under fire for his actions during the Vietnam War. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., here in June 2010 with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whom he refused to attack during the 2004 presidential campaign when Kerry came under fire for his actions during the Vietnam War. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — When we all look back at the life of Sen. John McCain, it’s easy to focus on all that he did — the sacrifice and victories, the wounds of war and the joy in service. But for me, it was something that McCain chose not to do years ago that I’ll always be grateful for.

It was 2002 and my boss, Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, was in a re-election fight so ugly, many of us on his staff frankly didn’t know how to respond. Would voters really believe that Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, was so blindly partisan that he would work against America’s national security and for the Democratic Party instead? That was the accusation against him in the campaign.

Cleland had been lifelong Democrat, but routinely partnered with Republicans in Washington, either senators on the Armed Services Committee to fight for men and women in the military, or with House members in the Georgia delegation, to deliver for the state’s needs back home. Especially in the months after 9/11, politics in Washington seemed to fade into the background as members of Congress worked together, urgently and regardless of party, to do whatever they needed to do to protect the country from the attacks that might come next.

It was probably naive at the time to think that the Republicans who had worked so much with Cleland in Washington would not then campaign against him when the next election came around, but that’s exactly what happened. The race tightened and then turned. It was politics, after all, and the goal of politics was to win. Always.

Notable holdout

Except when it came to Sen. John McCain. Unlike other Republicans, he told Cleland he would not campaign against him and he didn’t. Along with fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (another Vietnam combat veteran), McCain also denounced an attack ad that put photos of Cleland alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and accused the senator of lying and failing to protect the country at a time of war. While others were silent, McCain spoke out against it. “I’ve never seen anything like that ad,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s worse than disgraceful, it’s reprehensible.”

McCain’s statement didn’t make a major difference in the race. Cleland still lost. But it made a difference to those of us who needed to believe that some things were more important than politics and that there were leaders in Washington who believed that, too. McCain, Cleland and Hagel were three of the six Vietnam veterans in the Senate at the time. They all knew the costs of war and the incredible gifts of the country they fought — and could have died — for. For them, every day, nothing was more important than country.

Two years later, McCain did something similar for Sen. John Kerry who had clinched the Democratic nomination for president when a group of veterans cut an ad attacking his actions during Vietnam. McCain called that ad “dishonest and dishonorable” and said the White House should condemn it. That same year, McCain told Fox News, “John Kerry is a friend of mine. I don’t choose to attack or disparage him and I will not.” He went on: “I know that having a friend in Washington from another party is not acceptable to some in Washington. I have two words for them: too bad.”

I left Capitol Hill after the Cleland race. But thanks to McCain, I didn’t lose my faith in politics or the dignity of public service or the honor in the United States Senate. Today, it’s not only difficult to imagine the Senate without John McCain, I don’t particularly want to try.

Watch: Lawmakers Remember McCain as ‘Patriot,’ ‘Friend’

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Keeping the faith

I’d rather believe that the Senate is still a place where someone believes that some things are more important than politics and that nothing is more important than country. I’d also like to believe that the Senate can stand up for itself when necessary and will stand up for the American people when required. I want to believe that America is still a country that rewards a person who chooses service over self, instead of the other way around.

With John McCain in the Senate, I knew all of that was true. Without him, the others who fit the bill — and I know they are there — are going to have to raise their hands and make themselves known to the rest of the country. We need to have faith in our leaders as so many had faith in John McCain.

I don’t mean to lionize the senator and there’s no need to. Like all of us, he had plenty of faults. But unlike most, he pointed out his own shortcomings often. And he distinguished himself in today’s politics by stepping away from partisanship when he needed to make room for a path to do what he thought was right.

In his final farewell message Monday, McCain called on Americans to do the same. “We have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement,” he wrote. “If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times.”

McCain embodied that message in all that he did — and didn’t do — in his own life. It’s fitting that his final act of service is to pass it along to the country he loved so much, even in his death.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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