WASHINGTON, D.C.: The outpouring of affection for US Senator John McCain, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, highlights the respect the maverick Republican—symbol of a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation—has earned over his long career.
The former Vietnam prisoner of war and 2008 Republican presidential nominee has been a reliably even-keeled voice in an increasingly partisan chamber, a lawmaker whose quick temper has never prevented him from reaching across the aisle to craft policy with political rivals.
Former Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama joined President Donald Trump and hundreds of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in expressing their support since late Wednesday, when McCain’s diagnosis was made public.
As one, they paid homage to the 80-year-old as a “fighter,” a “hero”—nothing less than a national treasure.
“He’s in a special category of Americans, and we love him and respect him,” the number two Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, told AFP Thursday as he recounted his months-long work with the Arizona Republican on immigration reform.
“He was terrific. One day, he would explode like Mount Vesuvius and the next day, smother you with kindness,” Durbin added.
“It just shows that beyond the meanness of politics, there is a humanity in politics.”
It isn’t that McCain lacks an ideological compass; his convictions just don’t always align with party orthodoxy.
Decades ago, Senate alliances were based less on party than on issue or region. Cooperation was a hallmark.
McCain entered the Senate in the mid-1980s, and while he brought his military hot temper to Washington, he appreciated the comity and compromise of the upper chamber.
While the Senate has grown increasingly ideological, “he’s always looking for a bipartisan solution,” said Republican colleague John Cornyn.
However, for all his engagement in domestic issues, McCain’s bailiwick is foreign policy.
He is a national security hawk, mocked by isolationist Republicans for never saying no to military conflict—notably in Syria, where he pressed former President Barack Obama to intervene.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, he defiantly said US troops should remain in Iraq for 100 years.
McCain can embrace partisanship if need be: he has been a harsh critic of Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state.
In domestic politics, he usually votes with his party. But he has also defied them, as when he teamed up with Democrats to draft an immigration reform plan that would have legalized millions of undocumented workers.
And it was through McCain’s leadership that Congress passed legislation against torture.
McCain has rarely disguised his contempt for Tea Party colleagues, who flooded into Congress beginning in 2010, intent on upsetting the die-hard habits of forging ties with the other side through quiet backroom drinks or exercise in US Capitol gyms.
The impulsive McCain lashed out at the new breed of conservative Republicans, calling them “wacko birds.”
In a 2013 interview with AFP, he said he believed it was crucial to have “built up the trust of a lot of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
“I’ve also, in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and (former longtime House speaker) Tip O’Neil, been willing to compromise without betraying principles,” he added.
‘Fighting with passion’
McCain has been described as an iconoclast, or an embittered old man of the Senate. Earlier this week, Trump referred to him as “crusty.”
But the senator insisted he is “the same guy, fighting with passion, trying to do what he thinks is right.”
It is that approach that clashes with the degradation of political civility symbolized by Trump’s ascent.
McCain is the son and grandson of admirals, himself a former fighter pilot who spent more than five years as a POW in Vietnam.
So, he felt stung when in August 2016, candidate Trump verbally attacked the family of a Muslim-American soldier killed in combat.
“It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party,” McCain said.
The flash of fury led the billionaire businessman’s supporters to turn on McCain. But voters in Arizona re-elected him to a sixth term in November.
After the election, McCain vowed to talk less about Trump and focus on his work as chairman of the Senate armed services committee.
But as administration missteps mounted, McCain spoke out. He has become one of the party’s visible critics of Trump’s foreign policy, especially on Russia.
The senator expressed outrage at Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has described as a murderer, and the Kremlin’s cyber-campaign to influence the US election.
Even suffering a new health setback, McCain’s feistiness was intact Thursday as he tweeted for the first time since his diagnosis.
“Unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon,” he wrote, “so stand by!”