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John McCain: The last American statesman

Walid Jawad

Published: Updated:

The death of John Sidney McCain this past Saturday signaled the end of an error in America’s history. McCain who died at 81 years of age embodies the American ethos in ways that harken back to the era of American heroes and patriotic icons. He lived many lives all rolled up into one: a fighter-pilot, POW, a decorated hero, political icon, and self-styled maverick.

But more importantly, and perhaps the most defining of his virtues, his decency as a human being. Although making this summary judgment diminishes the complexity of the independent man who was known for never shying away from a principled stance.

At a town hall-style event he held during campaigning for the presidency against Barack Obama in 2008, a lady proclaimed her distrust in Obama saying “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” in his appearance in Lakeville, Minnesota in October of that year. McCain responded by saying "no, ma'am he is a decent family man, citizen, who I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about."

At the time my response was negative toward candidate McCain as his answer suggests decency and being an Arab were mutually exclusive. But as I reflect on the man 10 years later, I came to understand his answer in a different light; it was not about a philosophical discussion over ethnicity or stereotypical ideas attached to the Arab world, rather he was making a strong stand to defend the honor of the political system and the men and women who dedicate their lives to serving the nation.

It was revealing by him affirming Obama's patriotism and refraining from doubling down on the "bad" Arab stereotypical idea. At a time when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche of the American people. Islam and Arab were perceived to be the enemy of the American people.

What he didn’t say, spoke volumes. He was never fazed by the jeers of many of his supporters as he repeatedly confirmed his belief in Obama’s patriotism. He lost the presidency, in part, to his unwavering commitment to playing the political game for the higher purpose of country and decency. His defeat provided him a renewed vigor to reaffirm his maverick status in US Senate.

Though McCain took aggressive positions, he was able to strike the elusive balance between power and cooperation grounded in the reality of patriotism.

Walid Jawad

As a Republican, McCain advanced the ideals of his party by taking principled stands for what he believed in. He withheld his initial support of the Republican Party presidential nominee, Donald Trump, in the last elections after the leaked tapes of Trump’s locker-room talk surfaced.

The relationship between the two men never recovered. As the Republicans in Congress moved to deliver on Trump’s election promise to repeal Obama Care, the Affordable Care Act, he was the last to walk onto the Senate floor to cast his vote. No one was sure of his decision. Senators, the White House, and the nation held its collective breath. In a dramatic fashion before the gathering Republican leadership, he held up his hand before his decision.

The same right arm he can’t raise above his head after years of torture in a Vietnamese camp as a prisoner of war. (POW). An audible gasp could be heard signaling the tiebreaking vote; thumb down. The Republican Party holds the majority in both chambers of Congress, House, and Senate have failed to pass a vote to repeal and replace the controversial Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

In responding to reporters after the vote with the a bandage upon his forehead covering the scar of brain cancer surgery he said “We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people,” he stood for his principle continuing “We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve.”

Capture and Release

He followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both four-star naval officers, but he never achieved the same highest rank of his lineage. He left the Navy as a Captain after years in captivity in Vietnam. His plane was shot down and held captive for over five years.

The capture and torture by themselves would make a hero out of any one soldier, but to know that he passed up on the opportunity to be released because he wanted to deny his captors the opportunity to use the occasion for propaganda. McCain was accused of being a reckless person, but that episode revealed the essence of the man; principled and stubborn.

This is a moment of reflection for the US to re-examine its soul and reconfigure its identity. The US has lost its way moving far from the ideals upon which it was built. There is no doubt in the intention of politicians on both sides of the aisle; they are inspired by the values that were entrusted to them.

The dividing line is between those who are committed to carrying American’s values forward and those who feel obligated to revert the country to the purity of those ideals. The US cannot afford approaching the international community with the singular objective of winning a zero-sum game. The US is strongest when it finds ways to strike mutually beneficial options with allies, friends, and adversaries.

Though McCain took aggressive positions, he was able to strike the elusive balance between power and cooperation grounded in the reality of patriotism. McCain’s legacy will continue to guide a generation through his words and principled actions. It behooves legislators and politicians to be guided by McCain’s disciplined principles to decency sans political dogma.

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Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.