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Column: Honorable, but complicated

Posted: August 29, 2018 1:02 p.m.
Updated: August 31, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Last week, I made the suggestion that moderate Republicans might want to think about forming a new party since, in my opinion, President Donald Trump and his followers have hijacked the GOP. I suggested that some big names might be among that crowd.

Could Arizona Sen. John McCain have been one of them? Honestly, I don’t know. McCain was, perhaps, the most honorable, but at times the most complicated of Republicans.

Of his honor, I have no doubt. He faithfully served our country in many ways. He entered the Navy after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958. He served as a naval aviator, was almost killed in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 and was shot down over Hanoi that October. The North Vietnamese held him as a prisoner of war and tortured him for six years, finally releasing him in 1973.

In 1981, McCain retired as a Navy captain, moved to Arizona (he was born in the Panama Canal Zone) and elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the following year. McCain ran successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1987, where he served until his death on Aug. 25.

McCain was often called a maverick due to disagreements with some stances in the Republican Party. In my mind and to my understanding, he was a conservative who wasn’t afraid to buck his own party when they were wrong about something.

I can respect that.

He even acknowledged when he was wrong.

In 1983, newly installed in the House, McCain opposed the creation of a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Years later, in 2008, he said the following to The Washington Post: “We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona” (in 1990).

I can respect that even more.

He gained that “maverick” reputation during the 1990s. He worked hard -- with later Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry -- not only to determine there were no prisoners of war left in Vietnam, but to normalize relations with the country that had held him captive for so long. He confirmed President Bill Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; opposed military operations in Somalia; supported the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 (even though it was ruled unconstitutional two years later); and took on the tobacco industry to force companies to pay for the ill-health effects of its products.

That didn’t mean he was a darling of the Democrats. He voted to impeach Clinton, and criticized the administration for inaction regarding genocide during the Kosovo War.

McCain also ran for president, twice. Some people forget that he ran in 2000, but lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush. That campaign is most notable for the fact that it was McCain’s loss in the South Carolina primary (53 to 42 percent) that led him to criticize not just Bush, but evangelical Christian leaders for spreading lies about him. He dropped out of the race and endorsed Bush in March 2000.

For the next eight years, during Bush’s two terms, McCain often butted heads with the administration and his party on health care reform, climate change, tax cuts and even gun legislation. At one point, pundits wondered if he would switch parties, but he always maintained he would never do that. And he didn’t.

In fact, he strongly supported the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, policies, calling Iraq “a clear and present danger to the” U.S.

During Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, McCain supported him and Bush’s management of the War on Terror, while defending Kerry’s Vietnam War record.

By May 2005, McCain was leading the so-called “Gang of 14” -- Senate leaders who established a compromise on allowing filibusters against judicial nominees, but only in “extraordinary circumstances.” He then supported the nominations of justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

McCain also supported immigration reform, helped expose the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and opposed the Bush administration’s use of torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Perhaps one of the most telling things about McCain and his honor came during his 2008 presidential campaign (marred, unfortunately, by his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate). A supporter at a rally called Obama an “Arab.” McCain responded as follows: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

That is the way to behave as a candidate and politician. He may have opposed Obama both during and after the election, but he did so with respect.

I will miss that about John McCain most of all.

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