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Yvonne Abraham

A painful diagnosis for John McCain, a man of integrity

Senator John McCain stepped off his campaign bus in front of Exeter High School, and into a sea of students during his 2000 campaign.
Senator John McCain stepped off his campaign bus in front of Exeter High School, and into a sea of students during his 2000 campaign.(John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File)

So now, on top of everything else, we must contemplate the prospect of losing John McCain.

News that the Republican senator from Arizona has an aggressive form of brain cancer has brought an outpouring of supportive messages from across the political world, giving us a rare moment of the bipartisanship he has epitomized through most of his long career, and which seems all but gone, otherwise.

People love this guy. It’s hard not to, even if you live on a different political planet. He’s a bona fide hero — as a US Navy pilot he was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for years. And he’s a delight to be around, a fact that was clear every day during his first run for the presidency, a quixotic, free-wheeling affair in which McCain, with little to lose, seemed to live for upending things.

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Through the fall and into the icy New Hampshire winter of 2000, the senator sat in his red swivel chair in the back of his bus, chugging soda, and talking and talking and talking. His aides let him go mostly, only occasionally looking stricken when he’d gone too far. He was funny (though day after day of “Arizona is so dry the trees chase the dogs” could wear). More importantly, he laughed hard at other people’s jokes. On top of that, McCain had — still has — an endearing penchant for self-deprecation, which sometimes veered into self-flagellation.

As a reporter on that bus, I often wondered, and also at times privately worried, about what kind of president he would be, given some of his policy priorities. But I never worried about his integrity back then. He had come to his positions, including his hawkish beliefs on foreign policy, honestly, and he held them genuinely.

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Some of his positions — his certainty of the need for immigration reform, his near-religious zeal for campaign finance reform, his plea to make the GOP “as big as the country we serve” — were courageous, though not nearly as far out of the mainstream in 2000 as they would eventually become. His standing up to religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who had pulled American politics to the right, especially on social issues, was courageous, period. He abhorred dirty campaign tactics, having been the victim of some pretty foul stuff in South Carolina before that primary. And when he occasionally lacked the integrity he demanded of others — avoiding questions on whether the Confederate flag should be taken down from the state capitol, he came clean, eventually, wanting not forgiveness, it seemed, but to clear his conscience.

“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,’’ McCain said, after the primary, and his presidential bid, was over. “So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.’’

Nobody apologizes in politics any more. Nobody does most of the things McCain did back then. After he gave up his bid, atop a breathtaking red ridge on a gorgeous Sedona day, he vowed to continue to fight for campaign finance reform: “Should our party ever abandon this principle, the American people will rightly abandon us, and we will surely slip into the mists of history, deserving the allegiance of none.”

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He was wrong. His party abandoned that principle, and many others, but enough of the American people stayed with them and returned the GOP to power. The world changed, becoming a less hospitable place for un-careful, provocative, self-critical, principled politicians like McCain who refused, as he did back then, “to take the low road to the highest office in this land.”

Before the 2000 convention, he knew it, knew that there wasn’t room in politics anymore for that John McCain.

“Could we catch lightning in a bottle again?” he said, during one last bus trip. “The kind of unconventional campaign we ran, could that work?”

It couldn’t. When he went up against Barack Obama in 2008, he ran a campaign that looked as if it had abandoned his principles, and some of his signature positions, allowing some pretty low blows against the Democratic nominee. In desperation, he brought Sarah Palin onto the national stage. It was sad to see.

But McCain had his limits, and he sometimes appeared truly distressed at the ugliness that had overtaken us. At an especially angry rally in Minnesota, he rose to Obama’s defense when people in the crowd attacked him, calling him a Muslim and an Arab. McCain took the microphone away from one woman.

“No ma’am, he’s a decent family man,” he said. And the crowd booed him.

They booed him.

It’s an exchange that, in hindsight — and viewed from the low depths to which we have sunk — has turned into one of the most heroic moments of McCain’s career. The video clip was all over Twitter when news of his diagnosis broke on Wednesday.

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Now we have a president, a man who himself strenuously avoided being sent to Vietnam, who actually questioned McCain’s heroism, and was rewarded for it. “He’s not a war hero,” Donald Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

It was appalling. But McCain didn’t engage. Not on the attack against him, and not on any of the other inexcusable things his party’s nominee said and did during the campaign, until Trump finally boasted on tape of sexually predatory behavior, and the Arizona senator decided that he had had enough, withdrawing his support.

In the months since then, I have longed for the McCain who held court in the back of that bus almost 20 years ago to make more regular appearances. More than that, I’m nostalgic for a country where decency and integrity still counted a great deal — a world where a candidacy like McCain’s first run was possible.

Still, there have been glimpses of it, when McCain has refused to defend, or even poked, the president on foreign policy matters. He certainly hasn’t held back when it comes to Vladimir Putin, the murderous Russian president, whom McCain abhors.

How delightful it was to see McCain release a statement Thursday — amid the outpouring of well-wishes after his diagnosis — blasting the administration over reports that it would end a program to assist the Syrian opposition, accusing President Trump of “playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” and decrying the fact that, six months into the administration, there is still no strategy for victory in Afghanistan.

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Maybe McCain will really let it rip now. If we’re very lucky, he’ll be with us long enough to see his bravery borne out — and rewarded. The alternative is too painful to contemplate.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.