When my boys were growing up and I was trying to help them find the fine line between the hard and soft sides of life in America, I pitched this: “Be as tough as you have to be, but no tougher.”
It’s this line – between warrior when necessary and lover always – that John McCain mastered. He was diamond-tough when on mission in war or politics and capable of empathy and deep friendship when not.
Partly because he had sorted out this balancing act, he lived and died as a role model for what an American leader should look, act and talk like.
My one direct contact with Sen. McCain came when he was campaigning for the presidency as the Republican nominee in 2008. He was the star of a big rally at the Bucyrus plant in South Milwaukee, with their house-size tar sands shovels as the backdrop.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO who later ran for president in 2016, was the moderator of a panel of the responders to his speech, and I was privileged to be one of them. It was a big show, with dozens of national journalists in the entourage.
A half-hour beforehand, we had a chance to hob-nob with McCain in a small private room. He was gregarious, fun and comfortable in an unscripted setting. He knew his own mind, so was unafraid of being misquoted. I can’t remember what I asked him before or after his talk.
I do remember how he handled one pushy executive who arrived late and launched into a lobbying pitch. Republicans had been floating the use of the U.S. Post Office to manage the bailout of individual Americans who had been caught with under-collateralized and under-water mortgages.
The CEO loudly objected to a government agency to do that work. He said something like: “Let the private sector handle it.”
McCain listened, gave the man the stink eye and responded, “You mean like Countrywide?” That was the private company that had peddled a slew of the unstable mortgages that triggered the Great Recession. It was vintage McCain, who was known for his quick repartee. He had cut off the self-serving intrusion with four words. The guy probably wrote big donation checks for the GOP. It didn’t matter to McCain . The pre-speech conversation moved on.
The recession was in full fury at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, and the unpopular war in Iraq was grinding on. Those inherited issues proved too much for McCain to overcome. The American people opted for a cooler academic personality, Barrack Obama, a stark contrast to McCain’s warrior persona.
A St. Paul columnist, Don Davis, recalled Sunday a moment when an elderly woman declared at a Minnesota campaign stop: “I don’t trust Barack Obama because he’s an Arab.”
McCain grabbed the microphone from the then-75-year-old woman’s hands and chastised her. ‘He is a decent person and he is someone you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.’ “
That display of toughness, belief in the American value of inclusiveness and respect for his opponents captured the whole McCain package.
When he lost by seven points to Obama, McCain accepted the people’s decision with grace.
His deep belief in American values came into play again in 2016. Though he tried to align himself with Donald Trump after he became the surprise nominee, McCain’s stiff back prevented him from doing so. McCain stood up to the bullying of women and minorities and withdrew his support of candidate Trump before the 2016 general election. The last straw was the tape of Trump’s sexist comments.
McCain’s view of American values and the president’s were always diametrically opposed.
His funeral service last week was one of the finest chapters in his life of a loving and lovable tough guy. This country needs more John McCains.