Opinion

Renée Graham

John McCain’s maverick moment

John McCain took back the microphone from Gayle Quinnel to defend Barack Obama during a 2008 town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minn.
Jim Mone/Associated Press/File
John McCain took back the microphone from Gayle Quinnel to defend Barack Obama during a 2008 town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minn.

JOHN McCAIN missed the vote on President Trump’s catastrophic tax bill, but vows to return to work and Washington next month. Battling brain cancer, the senator is home in Arizona after a stay at Walter Reed Hospital, recovering from what his office called “normal side effects” of his treatment.

It’s impossible to overlook what McCain himself has called “a very poor prognosis.” For most diagnosed with this aggressive cancer, life expectancy averages 12 to 14 months. Some found dire subtext in McCain’s abrupt return to Arizona; of course, that didn’t stop his detractors, especially Republicans, from taking swipes at the ailing senator.

“McCain flew back from cancer surgery to vote no on repeal. Now suddenly he’s too sick from chemo to vote yes on the tax bill,” one man tweeted. “His hatred for Trump is his real cancer.”

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Though McCain generally votes within party lines, as he was expected to do on that grifter’s tax bill, Republicans have a fractious relationship with him. It’s been especially acute this year, as he has pushed back against Trump — a man he endorsed for president, then rescinded his endorsement after the lewd “Access Hollywood’ audio tape went public. And it goes back further than McCain’s dramatic thumbs down that sank the president’s vengeful Obamacare repeal attempt.

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Much to the unyielding chagrin of many Republicans, McCain seized his maverick moment with the presidency on the line.

A month before the 2008 presidential election between McCain and Barack Obama, the upstart Illinois senator was still fending off rumors that he was Muslim (not that this should have made any difference). Such chatter was meant to undermine his adequacy for the presidency.

At a Minnesota town hall, McCain handed the microphone to a woman who stammered, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab.” Before she could finish her next sentence, McCain took the microphone away from her.

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab],” McCain said. When another man said he was “scared” of an Obama presidency, McCain told him, “I have to tell you. Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

In a room packed with his supporters, McCain was booed and jeered for refusing to damn Obama with unfounded conspiracies. He easily could have stoked these untruths, but at the risk of his own presidential aspirations, McCain gave more of an endorsement to his opponent’s candidacy than he would give his party’s nominee eight years later.

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Certainly, it was more than Hillary Clinton, during her first presidential run, offered during a 2008 interview on “60 Minutes.” When asked whether she thought Obama was a Muslim, she said, “No. No, there’s nothing to base that on — as far as I know.” Clinton was no “birther,” but she couldn’t resist casting a shadow of doubt on Obama’s legitimacy. She went there — McCain would not.

I don’t get nostalgic about American politics — it’s always been a piranha-filled cesspool. Still it’s now more grotesque than most of us could have ever imagined. Politicians often bend the truth. Trump, on the other hand, never goes anywhere near it. This administration doesn’t just stoke doubts; they manufacture and hard-sell straight-up lies as if they’re this season’s hottest gift.

Trump paved his path to the presidency on falsehoods. McCain refused to bottom-feed his way to the White House. He showed honor and grace now alien in a GOP hell-bent on crushing anyone in its path — including its own. As McCain reaches his twilight hours, his truest turn as a maverick should not be forgotten.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.